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SOUL OF AFRICA (article first published : 2001-10-5)

Running in the Durban Art Gallery until November 25 is Soul of Africa – art from the Han Coray Collection

Han Coray was one of the first early collectors to exhibit African tribal objects as art which he collected on aesthetic considerations in the early part of the 20th century. The collection has always been regarded as an art collection and never as an ethnographic one. The people for whom these objects were made, however, did not separate form from function. The aesthetic effects were part of the object's "correctness" to indicate status and importance.

While the concept of "art" in the Western European paradigm in these communities did not exist, the success of the work as signifier and in ceremony was linked to the craftsmanship. Structural principle was intrinsic to the object. In most of the cultures represented in the Han Coray Collection, "good" and "beautiful" are expressed by the same word. The many chairs and stools that were owned by persons of a high status are one example where they are ornamented with symbols that reflected their rank and prestige.

The exhibition is structured into six thematic areas that address royalty, proclamations of status, rituals of passage, religious practices, funerary and ancestral beliefs and ceremonial instruments.

George Baselitz writes, "There is a connection between the idea behind a sculpture and its designated purpose." In a museum environment, these pieces are out of context, removed from their natural life cycle. For example, idealised human figures carved by the Baule to assuage the spirits of the wilderness were usually smeared with beer or blood from sacrificial offerings. While some figures still bear traces of their earlier lives, most were cleaned off before they were sold to European collectors.

Similarly, power figures were altered once they had been completed by the maker. Substances thought to contain supernatural powers were added or nails were driven into them to stimulate healing powers, elicit advice, or seal an oath.

Exhibition curator Miklós Szalay says Han Coray came to believe there was no distinction between African art and religion. Death is a transition to a higher realm, and representations of deceased ancestors are meant to encourage their participation in the lives of those they left behind. Szalay goes on to say that today, the unity between art, religion and society no longer exists in Africa the way it did in the 1920s. "Art, it is said, strives for autonomy," he writes in the catalogue, but then cautions that as art is released from its social and religious context, its importance is diminished.




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