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  • Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone eds. by Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers and Alexander Bortolot
  • Javier López Piñón (bio)
Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone Edited by Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers and Alexander Bortolot; essays by Mariane C. Ferme and Paul Richards, Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, Nanina Guyer, Barbara C. Johnson, Christine Mullen Kreamer, Frederick John Lamp, Daniel Reed Seattle: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2014. 240 pp., 500 color ill., map, appendix, biblio., index. $39.95 paper

This collection of essays plus integrated catalogue accompanies a traveling exhibition of art from Liberia and Sierra Leone, collected over several decades by the late William Siegmann and bequeathed to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts in 2011. Emphasizing the forest regions of the Upper Guinea Coast, this publication includes both wellknown and lesser-known artistic traditions and practices. Sande and Dan masks, brass casting, early photography, and contemporary use of ancient nomoli and other stone sculptures feature prominently.

The volume opens appropriately with a memoriam to Siegmann's dedication, energy, insight, and communication skills, as well as his generosity. He enabled several institutions in the United States and Liberia to significantly enrich their collections and acquire in-depth insights into the arts of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The opening essay by Mariane C. Ferme and Paul Richards provides the reader with an almost impressionistic set of observations concerning the primary and "secondary" forest (where humans have interfered) that characterizes the regional landscape. This essay switches between historical explanations, agricultural analysis, ethnocultural observations, and references to material culture.

The authors pay attention to the materials used for the construction of masks, costumes, and other ritual paraphernalia, and the current state of affairs concerning deforestation. The impact of trade upon the forest is touched upon, but no conclusion is drawn other than that, for masked ceremonies, natural elements are combined with items imported through trade. The double authorship of the article might explain this lack of clear purpose as the authors hail from very different fields: sociocultural anthropology on one side and technology and agrarian development on the other.

The next essay, by Nanina Guyer, is on the subject of photographic material of Sande society initiates from Sierra Leone kept in European and American collections. The author describes how photography had already become a widespread commodity by the early twentieth century, even in the hinterland outside of the coastal areas. Sande had obviously relaxed their strict rules of secrecy when a camera was near: Most of the pictures were taken during the process, albeit never within the sacred enclosure, but always on the public road. Guyer analyzes a set of pictures of the initiates and concludes that they are not spontaneous records but fully staged: Both photographer and subjects are careful to present the initiates according to a required standard.

The emergence of the popular picture postcard helped spread images of Sande initiation throughout the world, but the pictures, turned into profitable items of trade, made them victims of exploitation: Correct captions were replaced by sensationalist stereotyped exoticism feeding Western prejudices. Even blunt, pre-Photoshop manipulation can be detected, as one particularly telling example shows. This article is a welcome contribution to the subject of the publication; not all cultures have been that lavishly illustrated in history and it seems really worthwhile to analyze carefully the images and the contexts in which they were produced.

Lamp's essay on Sande mask carvers adds another fruit to the basket of recent research on the identity of so-called anonymous African artists. After an efficient introduction into the helmet masks of the Sande/Bundu society, he uses his database of 30,000 images of masks from the region resulting from decades of study in order to identify the Siegmann masks exhibited. Thus, from the ninety-odd workshops/carvers identified so far, he attributes the Siegmann Sande masks to eight different workshops. In passing, Lamp presents a clear insight into the difficulties, dilemmas, and doubts arising whenever one tries to attribute firmly a certain mask to a specific workshop or carver.

Lamp dedicates a separate section to the much rarer and lesser-studied men's masks...


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pp. 92-93
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