Saturday, October 10, 2009

Understanding from within. ( Mangbetu artwork; American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York).

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LOVE the American Museum of Natural History. I love the way its massive length stretches along the wide side of Central Park like some benign, quiescent dinosaur. I love the musty, superannuated smell of its interminable corridors, its facsimile fish and fragile glass models of micro-organisms, its quaint dioramas of bullmoose, egrets, and yaks, untouched since the day they were stuffed back in the Thirties. But most of all I love the halls of anthropology and ethnology, the Hall of Asian Life, Man in Africa, and the Eskimo Hall. As often as I have visited these parts of the museum, I can never enter them without feeling an expansive rush of friendship for, and communion with, the noble strangers whose lives are thus revealed to me. I recall, in the deepest and naivest part of my soul, those sublime words of Miranda: "How wondrous mankind is!"

I felt that way again on a recent visit to African Reflections, a fine new exhibition on display at the museum through next January. This exhibition is devoted to the art and culture of the Mangbetu peoples of northeastern Zaire. The Mangbetu were and remain a great nation, and have been in contact with Europeans since the early nineteenth century. At the meridian of their greatness, before being colonized by Belgium more than one hundred years ago, the Mangbetu were organized into a large and impressively centralized kingdom. They met in prodigiously massive halls of timber and woven rattan, over a hundred feet long and fifty feet wide, with a roof that sloped down forty feet until it almost touched the ground. Their kings and queens were arrayed in all the costly regalia befitting their greatness. Their court was one of punctilious ceremony.

Through art and artifacts, photographs, music, and videos, the present exhibition offers us a deep insight into the culture of the Mangbetu. To be sure, the display itself betrays the slightly maladroit clunkiness that one expects from the museum. Its treasures are spread out across a confusingly labyrinthine sequence of rooms that have learned little from the museological" snazziness that typifies most exhibitions at the Metropolitan, its more richly endowed sister across the park.

The artifacts displayed at the museum often possess a beauty that endows them with more than merely ethnological interest. Whereas much of the art of Africa has tended to be abstract, the Mangbetu have made out of wood many sensitively modeled figures that exhibit a keen observation of the human body, as well as humorous and not always flattering scenes of white men carved into ivory. But it was primarily during the period of European overlordship that these peoples made anthropomorphic art. Before that time, and subsequently, they showed a great affinity for abstract patterns composed of natural fibers, animal tails, turtle vertebrae, seedpods, fish jawbones, teeth, fiber cordage, shells, brass wires, and whatever else was ready at hand.

My admiration for the exhibition was not shared by a companion, a young woman of more "enlightened" propensities. Although she could accept with some measure of decorum the scientific sections of the museum, albeit with grave misgivings about the stuffed animals, she had nothing good to say about African Reflections and the permanent ethnological installations. For her the museum was a veritable fortress of Eurocentrism, casting a questionably scientific glow over Western colonial expansion into the Third World. For her it was a cathedral to the arrogance of European man's incursions into the habitats of those who are referred to, so condescendingly, as "primitive." She was not alone in this opinion. In his excellent if tendentious work, The Invention of Africa, V. Y. Mudimbe writes that "the discourse on 'savages' is ... a discourse in which an explicit political power presumes the authority of a scientific knowledge and vice versa. Colonialism becomes its project and can be thought of as a duplication and a fulfillment of the power of Western discourses on human varieties."

Contemporary thinkers have looked with grave misgivings upon the most fundamental premises of ethnology and have criticized its claims to record objectively the attributes of alien cultures. The clinically taxonomical cataloguing of the varieties of the human species, the delight in the incarnated differentness of peoples, has seemed to be fraught with innumerable acts of cultural hubris. Anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss have as their ideal "to understand being in relation to itself and not in relation to oneself"-in other words, to understand alien cultures from within, according to their own terms, effacing all the superficial differences of people that obscure their essential sameness.

It is to the credit of the American Museum of Natural History that it has stood its ground with regard to its legion of detractors. It is one of the pleasures of the universe we inhabit that all peoples are related and no two are the same. Interest in ethnology arises from a healthy delight in the differences among peoples. To pretend otherwise, in the interest of a pseudo-scientific and ultimately valueless quest for absolute objectivity, is foolhardy and wrong.

Source Citation:Gardner, James. "Understanding from within." National Review 42.n22 (Nov 19, 1990): 56(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 10 Oct. 2009

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