By Michael Kurtz, Second Year Undergraduate BA History of Art
Michael won the Reaktion Book Prize for the best First Year Undergraduate extended essay on an ‘image, object or building in Oxford’. Here he writes on his research and gives an insight in to how he approached the essay.
In the first year of the Oxford History of Art undergraduate degree, students write an extended essay about any one object, image or building in the city. Given Oxford’s outstanding architectural and museological history, this assignment is not as narrow as it might seem and choosing a topic can be daunting. I knew I wanted to explore the areas of crossover and tension between the western tradition and non-western culture and so focused in on the Pitt Rivers Museum – as a unique collection loaded with the legacies of cross-cultural and often colonial interaction (read its history here).
Kongo peoples, Mavungu, late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
I was immediately drawn to ‘Mavungu’, a wooden figure with its mouth wide open and pierced with hundreds of metal shards, stood at the back of a case labelled ‘West African Sculpture’. It was the instant aesthetic appeal that the object had for me, as a western beholder, that was intriguing. In essence, it was this first interaction, the sense I had of simultaneous beauty and otherness, understanding and novelty, that I wanted to analyse and explain. That primordial meeting between viewer and artwork defines the nature of the research as it sets in motion the kinds of questions that one is curious to answer – in order to contextualise, explain or at least discuss this response.
The figure, I learnt, was a material manifestation of a hunter spirit (nkondi in Kongolese), designed in the late nineteenth century to ward off the growing Portuguese colonial forces on the trading waterways of the Kongo. It is thought (but interpretations are vague and vary considerably) that a nganga (or priest) would have been paid to incite the spirit against specific individuals or groups by implanting nails into its body. As such, the figure is more a functional than aesthetic object and, unlike most western ‘artworks’, did not have one moment of creation or one creator but was subject to a ritual process of material accumulation.
Kongo peoples, Mavungu (detail), late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
I was able to explain the uncanny familiarity of Mavungu quite quickly as the Kongo kingdom had a long history of close interaction with Catholic missionaries from Portugal, and so its culture and cosmology was intertwined with Biblical art and tradition. The nailed masculine figure is a visual type that is surely affixed on the retina of every European art-lover. However, there were also assumptions I made that I had to reconsider and criticise. For instance, I first read the figure as an image of intense pain – with a face that recalled Edvard Munch’s Scream and a body pierced with metal shards – but the nails were in fact symbolic of the suffering the spirit would inflict on its victims and the mouth was open wide in order to hold manioc, a root poisonous to people who had failed to keep to promises confirmed by the spirit. I had thus westernised the figure’s features, forced them to conform to my European way of seeing and failed to understand the practical role within a ritual process that Mavungu had fulfilled.
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, © National Gallery, Oslo, Norway
It was these misunderstandings and re-interpretations that became the focus of my study; my essay was structured as a biography of Mavungu’s reception in order to trace and analyse the changing ways the figure was seen across its history. My own initial experience of the object became just one in a series of encounters that I could research, the most prominent of which being that of Mary Kingsley, the Victorian traveller who owned Mavungu before it was given to the Pitt Rivers in 1900. She kept the figure as the centrepiece of her hall in London and showed it off to guests as proof of her adventures and evidence that we should save ‘pure’ and ‘wild’ African culture from colonial influence. She thus betrays her ignorance of the role of Catholic missionaries and colonial forces in the formation of the figure.
Around the same time, the English establishment was using objects like Mavungu to reinforce an idea of ‘Africa’ in the European public consciousness as barbaric, uncivilised and therefore deserving of imperial domination. Its 1901 museum label reductively described its involvement in ‘gruesome practices’ and thought it blood-smeared, an ironic mistake given that its lips were painted red once it was in England in order to generate a stereotyped, barbaric appearance. These examples from my research demonstrate my overall argument that a piece of material culture can been used as an ideological tool and is drastically changed both physically and conceptually depending on its contextual function and beholder’s mindset.
Just as it is, I think, the initial interaction one has with the artwork that shapes the aims of an academic inquiry, the method of choosing an object is eventually mirrored in the final essay. From a general area of potential interest I found my object and then through this specific point I re-explored, with much more specific purpose, the broader themes that brought me to the figure in the first place. The original, vague conceptual notions and presumptions that bring you to an object, image or building are re-evaluated by your engagement with that art historical evidence. As both the approach and subject of my essay, this extended negotiation with the complexities of the way we think about and look at objects through time is surely the value of the exercise.
Renée Stout, Fetish No. 2, 1988, © Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
In order to provide an alternative and current perspective, I concluded my essay by discussing a contemporary artist, Renée Stout, who in her 1988 work Fetish No. 2 manipulates the form of a Kongolese hunter spirit and adapts it to her current situation as a black woman artist in urban America. By making her figure first a nude and secondly a self-portrait, she engages in the western tradition as well as the Kongolese and adapts both to meet her own needs. She inserts herself into the fraught history of reception of African art that I explored but re-appropriates the artistic form as a radical act against western appropriation. Yet Stout also admits that her sculpture is in no way engaged with the ritual function of Kongolese spirit figures and so it symbolically reflects the journey that Mavungu has made, from liturgical furniture to aesthetic artefact, trapped behind glass in twenty-first-century Oxford.
The inclusion of this last, contemporary artistic point-of-view was the suggestion of my supervisor, and former Senior Curator of the Pitt Rivers, Jeremy Coote. During several meetings over the course of the year, he provided relevant reading lists along with crucial theoretical insights that helped to shape the methodological framework of the essay. In my experience, the supervisory relationship was the most rewarding aspect of the process as it fostered a sense of productive collaboration and mutual academic interest that I found immensely exciting. The three-way dialogue – between object, supervisor and student – inevitably leads to interesting and unexpected results and has been hugely important in forming my ideas, and the way I want to write, about visual culture.
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