- A Mighty TreeDouglas F. Fraser 1930–1982
"The wisdom of ancestors"—Edmund Burke, 1756, and a common saying
"A Mighty Tree has Fallen"—a proverb for death among many African peoples1
Several African peoples, on the passing of a great man, will avoid the word "death," preferring the poetic indirection of a mighty tree falling. Mortality is not final in Africa, nor is it for us. Fallen trees regenerate; they still exist, if on a new plane, and remain active. We survivors have grown from the seeds of those trees, whose broad branches in life sheltered councils of elders and provided the fruits we eat and the wood from which we have built our own houses. In much of Africa ancestors are venerated because they are believed to observe and affect the living. Their funerary sendoffs are often quite elaborate festivals for those very reasons—ancestors are not truly and finally dead; rather, they live on a different plane in another world, and often nearby. So it is with our academic forebears, whose wisdom we cherish, whose memory we honor.
Our respect and affection for those ancestors, and their teachings, are great—hence this issue of African Arts. Academic "generations" are often compressed, even to ten years or less. Thus Douglas Fraser studied with Paul Wingert in the 1950s, and I studied with Fraser in the 1960s, with my third generation students starting off in the late '60s and early '70s: three "generations" cycling through in under thirty years. Yet because Doug Fraser died some thirty-four years ago, his venerated ancestral status is firmly assured for many, and especially for me.
Douglas F. Fraser, a Columbia professor of art history and archaeology for twenty-seven years, joined the ancestral plane at the age of 52 in 1982, dying of complications of Legionnaire's disease (Fig. 1). He has long been remembered as a fine and principled man, if sometimes quixotic, as a forceful and charismatic teacher and generous friend. He had a rangy, inquisitive mind and keen wit, a global command of art, architecture, and bibliography. He encouraged students to explore uncharted waters, as he himself did. These together meant that his contributions to the world of African art history (and Indonesian, Oceanic, Native American, and Pre-Columbian art history, which he also knew and taught) far exceed his published work. I'll refer to most of his publications here, but they are not the best measures of his contribution to art history or his influence on the field.
Fraser graduated from Columbia in 1951 and became a lieutenant junior grade in the US Navy. He wrote his 1955 Columbia MA thesis on mask styles of the Northwest Coast and joined the Columbia faculty as an instructor the same year. He completed his PhD on the art of the Torres Straits in 1959, under Paul S. Wingert, counting also Meyer Schapiro and Rudolf Wittkower among his mentors. Already his purview was wide, even as in his later years he settled on Africa as a focus of teaching and writing. In 1962 (the fall I entered the Columbia art history graduate program), both Fraser and Wingert were teaching, and both brought out general books on the broad fields then called "primitive": Wingert's Primitive Art: Its Traditions and Styles and Fraser's Primitive Art, the latter including some Pre-Columbian art in addition to African, Oceanic, Indonesian, and Native American. The facts that the serious university study of African art began only in the late 1950s—at Indiana under Roy Sieber, NYU under Robert Goldwater, and Columbia with Wingert and Fraser—and that the field was still called "primitive" in the 1960s, shows how far we have travelled in fifty-odd years. Notably, of those pioneers, only Sieber had set foot on the African continent before the 1960s.
Fraser's 1962 book, and his 1966 The Many Faces of Primitive Art: A Critical Anthology, espoused diffusionist theories about global contacts accounting for the migration of forms and styles, elaborated by Fraser from the work of Robert Heine-Geldern, [End Page 30] along with other approaches: style and morphology, environmental effects, functionalism, social control, techniques...