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Kunstnernes valg: “2026. Negerskulptur: Hodepynt fra Bambara”

Kunstnerens valg: Florian Schneider

I have been invited by the Trondheim Kunstmuseum to select one artwork from their collection and present my choice in a public talk.

It wasn’t a very difficult decision: i was immediately fascinated by a series of sculptures which appeared in a rather precarious state at the margins of the collection.

They were lacking the most basic information which is indispensable for evaluating a piece of art within a collection. Created by an unknown artist, in an unknown year, and without any hint of a pedigree.

No one knows who made this work, when and why -- let alone how it ended up in Trondheim and most importantly: in the collection of the art museum.

The only thing we know and should go without saying: It is a wooden sculpture of an antelope.

But even the “antelope” does not exist. The unknown artwork by an unknown artist actually depicts an unknown animal. The antelope does not correspond to any zoological category. Since the 19th century the term “antelope” is widely used to describe all members of the family Bovidae that do not fall under the category of sheep, cattle, or goats. Scientifically one can only speak of “gazella” and “gazella-like” animals.

Etymologically, “anthólops” (probably relating to the greek words: flower + eye) is a fabulous animal "haunting the banks of the Euphrates, very savage, hard to catch and having long, saw-like horns capable of cutting down trees".

In short: There is a work of art and basically we seem know nothing about it. The only information at hand assumes that the sculpture originates from Africa, a continent that is usually paraphrased as the dark or unknown continent, often a synonym for the unconscious.

These three aspects of non-knowledge (unknown form, unknown content, unknown context) are the starting point for my presentation today, since they triggered my initial excitement. What do we do when we think that we know nothing?

In a certain sense it is a very peculiar challenge to look at a work of art on the basis of an strategic ignorance, not spoiled by preconceptions and prejudices. The antelope, literally: the “beautiful eye", should allow us to critically reflect on what it means to see something.

What do we see? We see: “2026. Negerskulptur: Hodepynt fra Bambara.”
We see the abstract representation of a wild animal carved in wood, and today owned by a museum. At recent auctions at Sotheby’s sculptures like our one here have been sold for almost 40.000 USD.

It is a Chiwara headdress from the Bambara people in Mali, most likely: “Vertical/Segu/Northern region style”. It is not very difficult to compile some information from websites specialised on african art.

“The Bambara form the largest ethnic group in Mali. The triangle of the Bambara region, divided in two parts by the Niger River, constitutes the greater part of the western and southern Mali of today. The dry savanna permits no more than a subsistence economy, and the soil produces, with some difficulty, corn, millet, sorghum, rice, and beans. Their traditions include six male societies, each with its own type of mask.

The tji wara society members use a headdress representing, in the form of an antelope, the mythical being who taught men how to farm. The word tji means “work” and wara means “animal,” thus “working animal.” There are antelopes with vertical or horizontal direction of the horns. In the past the purpose of the tji wara association was to encourage cooperation among all members of the community to ensure a successful crop. In recent time, however, the Bambara concept of tji wara has become associated with the notion of good farmer, and the tji wara masqueraders are regarded as a farming beast. The Bambara sponsor farming contests where the tji wara masqueraders perform. Always performing together in a male and female pair, the coupling of the antelope masqueraders speaks of fertility and agricultural abundance. According to one interpretation, the male antelope represents the sun and the female the earth. The antelope imagery of the carved headdress was inspired by a Bambara myth that recounts the story of a mythical beast (half antelope and half human) who introduced agriculture to the Bambara people. The dance performed by the masqueraders mimes the movements of the antelope. Antelope headdress in the vertical style, found in eastern Bambara territory, have a pair of upright horns. The male antelopes are decorated with a mane consisting of rows of openwork zigzag patterns and gracefully curved horns, while the female antelope supports baby antelopes on their back and have straight horns. The dancers appeared holding two sticks in their hands, their leaps imitating the jumps of the antelopes. From the artistic point of view the tji wara are probably the finest examples of stylized African art, for with a delicate play of line the sensitive carvings display the natural beauty of the living antelope. “

The Chiwara, especially in its more abstract forms, became one of the icons of what Europeans called “Primitive Art”. The artist Guillaume Apollinaire and collector Paul Guillaume published images of the Chiwara in their Sculptures nègres in 1917, while Picasso, Braque, and Les Fauves became fascinated with African sculpture and masks in general, and the Chiwara figure in particular.

Before World War 1 only a few “art lovers” had started acquiring African and Oceanic sculptures. They incorporated them into their collections of modern art. Art dealers were selling “just discovered” artefacts from throughout the world and exhibited them next to works of contemporary artists. And also art critics like Appolinaire and Hausenstein occasionally wrote about the work of remote cultures in order to train their audiences in looking at art of their time.

The avantgarde movements of the early 20th century can hardly be understood without a further critical investigation into their ongoing reception and their relationship to what is called “primitive art”.

The crucial reference point in this context is the publication of a short treatise by the german writer and art theorist Carl Einstein. In 1915 he published “Negerplastik”, the first serious investigation in African sculpture as works of art.

“The colonial view of the European had been neither able nor willing to perceive the character of African sculptures as art, and an unprejudiced approach to the art, culture and history of Africa had therefore been impossible” (Uwe Fleckner)

Einsteins work can be considered a first acknowledgment of african art as “art”. Despite of the methodological problems regarding the dating and geographical attribution of the works, Einstein concentrates on formal problems:

“It was realised that certain problems of space and a particular way of creating art had been formulated in this purity hardly anywhere else as they had among the blacks.”

What does Einstein mean with ”certain problems of space”?

Einstein refers to both Adolf von Hildebrand’s relief theory and equally so on the experiential, temporal model of the “impressionist” sculpture he identified with Rodin. According to Einstein, in impressionism sculpture abandoned more and more its independent plastic force in favor of a calculated effect on the viewer, to devote its message.

Hildebrand had proposed that sculpture should allow the viewer to reconstruct three-dimensional space pictorially either through a single coherent frontal image, which Einstein countered “essentially cheats the viewer out of the experience of the cubic,” or through the synthesis of sequential images generated over time as the viewer moves around the object.

Einstein valued sub-Saharan African sculpture precisely for what he identified as the immediacy of its three-dimensional totality:

“Cubic form must be apprehended all at once. [...] Three-dimensionally situated as they may be, all parts of the composition must nonetheless be represented simultaneously, i.e., the dispersed space must be integrated into a single field of vision.”

“The difficult task of sculpture is to ‘fix’ the third dimension which is perceived outside the work of art as a sequence of movements, in a single optical imaginative act and look at it as a totality.”

Einstein argues for the “three-dimensional as form”, the creation of space as form and not as depiction of spatial depth. The collection of “dispersed space” -- the endlessly extended natural space the viewer cannot grasp -- in a way that form embodies the visible section of space as well as the merely imagined space.

African sculpture aims for an absolute formation of space independently from the changing impressions of the viewer. “This means each part has to be made plastically independent and deformed in such a way that it absorbs the depth while the idea of how it would look from the opposite side is incorporated into the frontal yet three-dimensionally functional side.”

“Cubic space” paves the way for what one could call “a realism of space” or “spatial realism”:

Carl Einstein argued that the conception of space which appears in cubism as abstraction has to been understood when it comes to african sculptures as the strongest form of realism.

Here Einstein opposes directly the theories of Wilhelm Worringer who explains the desire to abstraction as “Raumangst”, agoraphobia, a fear of the space among primitive cultures which lack control over nature and things. The abstraction of the primitive is opposed to the sophisticated technologies of empathy, mimesis and identification (“Einfühlung”) which he assigns to ancient greek and renaissance period characterised by the domination of nature through science.

“Whereas the precondition of the urge to empathy is a happy, pantheistic relationship of confidence between man and the external world, the urge to abstraction is the outcome of great unrest inspired in man by the phenomena of the outside world.”

“Leider will der Wunsch nicht aussterben, sich in die Seele des rohen Menschen hineinzuversetzen. “ (Ernst Bloch, 1916)

Einstein positions himself against such a classical understanding of space, an understanding that favours human-centered perspective over an allegedly “primitive” fear of space which results in abstraction. Notably, in the midst of World War 1, he argues for a decomposition of anthropocentric space, a decomposition of the so-called ‘civilised’ space of empathy, mimesis, identification and immersion.

Obviously referring to Freuds three stages: animism, religion, science, Einstein later discovers “animism” as the “imaginative production of meaning [...] valorised as against any kind of mimeticism...”

Why should this matter? And what can we learn from this today?

First of all, we can recognise that the role of primitivism cannot be reduced to an unmediated appropriation of innocent, authentic or naive works of art from indigenous cultures who live a spotless life far away from the allures of consumerism and capitalism.

On the contrary: Einstein has taught us, that we need to learn seeing, we need to learn time and again how to look at art and only by this we can change existing or create new realities. This refers to the very notion of theory: the art of looking at things as a critical investigation of the way how we see seeing.

Rather than a substance, “Primitivism” appears as a line of flight. Rather than in a line of sight, we need to do a lot of hard work, in order to re-discover the actual challenges which might correspond in very interesting ways with the challenges we are facing today.

In such a theory of seeing, what are the problems of time and space today?

1. Rather than “marshalling time” through a convergence of collecting, exposing and presenting work in the synchronised real time of an art space as “a new kind of mass medium” (Chris Dercon), we are interested in the potentials of latency and delay: art is always too early or too late.

While today’s knowledge-based capitalism commodifies time-spaces to a notion of “knowing what time it is” and fetishises an artificial “real-time”, art carries the paradoxical potential of a timely untimeliness.

The a-synchronisation of time runs counter to the “cybernetic positivism” as the new rationale of today.

2. A non-romantic and anti-impressionist understanding of the illegible, unmeasurable and incalculable as unrecognisable and incompressible in technical terms.

“Evidently art-making comprises many elements of cruelty and assassination. For every precise form is an assassination of other versions: mortal anguish cuts the current. More and more reality is decomposed, which makes it less and less obligatory; the dialectic of our existence is reinforced [...]: it is a traumatic accentuation.”

Commenting on the radical transformation of vision produced in the trajectory between impressionism and cubism, Einstein wrote of a ‘collapse in the commerce of beauty’; on the ruins of this destruction, the visual object was then qualified as ‘manifestation’ (Äußerung), ‘event’ (Ereignis) and, finally, as ‘symptom’ (Symptom).

Due to new technologies, we experience today another “‘collapse in the commerce of beauty’; form (not to be confused with formalism) is the decomposition of the object, and this has to lead to a decomposition of the human figure. The image acts as a disruption of vision, but we need to proceed and create a new vision.

Rather than figuring out how to translate physical volumes and constantly changing movements of viewpoint from three-dimensional forms to paper and canvas (as Cubism did), we are confronted today with the challenges of a “transvisuality” that confronts us with already pre-configured and manufactured notions of virtual or augmented realities.

The visual becomes traversal, it crosses the borders of disciplines and technologies. The concept of the transvisual assumes that the field of visuality is mutable. Audiences are characterised by a constant modulation of subject-positions while shifting between contexts. Transvisuality is a kind of “seeing on the move”.

At the same time transvisuality is also understood as a visual organisation in-the-making as an effect of manifold traversing articulations and interconnected practices: how is the 'stuff' of visuality - a 3-D ultrasound image of the blood vessel, mechanical scanning on nanoscale, the picture of a rock recorded by a submarine drone - intertwined in a range of cultural and technological practices, transformed and transgressed by them in transvisuality?

Again, the concept of “transvisual” has appeared first in the late writings of the art theorist Carl Einstein and it is an attempt to grasp what is perfectly present in an image, but transcends its optical organisation or what is actually fixated in the image.

While Einstein developed transvisuality as a counter concept to the unconscious, let me conclude with the opening sequence of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, as a perfect actualisation of both, the concept of transvisuality and the role the antilope plays in it.

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