Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Arts of Power Associations in West Africa

West African power associations are responsible for an array of arts, including masks, sculptures, and performances. The arts of kòmò and kònò, two predominantly male institutions, have captured the attention of museum audiences in Europe and the United States. Communities across western West Africa support the two organizations and many others, including several belonging to women. Although they are primarily concentrated in communities of Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea where Mande and Gur languages (including Senufo) are spoken, power associations appear elsewhere in the region. They are dynamic institutions that respond to local contexts and historical change and thus exhibit great variability.

Power associations sponsor diverse artistic forms that reflect their members’ profound knowledge, command of spiritual energy, and networks of personal relationships (1978.412.361; 1978.412.362; 1978.412.426; 1979.206.150; 1979.206.175). The organizations attract diverse members dedicated to safeguarding individuals and communities and ensuring general well-being. The rural farmers, specialized artists, and urban professionals who join these institutions undertake lengthy study and learn how to govern incredible natural and metaphysical power. In order to achieve their goals, members become specialists equipped to command nyama, a vital force or “energy of action” that is identified with enormous potential to create or destroy. Few members acquire the knowledge and resources necessary to emerge as leaders who own and maintain their own chapters.

Individuals consult power association experts when they fall ill, court potential spouses, embark on journeys, or start new careers. In a role comparable to that of professional diviners, power association leaders advise others on how to overcome sickness, manage complicated relationships, and achieve personal goals. They identify obstacles in their clients’ lives and propose solutions to help them overcome those challenges. Unlike diviners, however, power association leaders also develop techniques that enable them to disrupt socially aggressive or malicious acts. They use their skills to protect people subject to injuries provoked by their adversaries’ jealousy and ill will. They therefore have the capacity to heal or to cause harm. The men (and occasionally women) who belong to power associations earn reputations as mediators of complex and potentially life-threatening circumstances. The most successful experts attract clients and students from distant locales and, in so doing, garner additional resources to invest in the institutions and their arts.

The sculptures and masks maintained by the organizations demonstrate members’ acute understanding of plants, animals, and spiritual energy. Given the nature of their work and their potential to cause harm, power association leaders vet their associates and collaborate with caution. Individuals who understand how to wield great power also possess the knowledge to render it ineffective. Although the associations depend on the exchange of information, members carefully guard details about the materials and methods they use to achieve results.

Power association members resist full disclosure of the organic and inorganic materials incorporated into their arts. Spectators see porcupine quills, feathers, horns, and other elements added to masks and sculptures, but they cannot discern media packed into cavities or otherwise obscured. Power associations promote arts that at once reveal and conceal their most effective and innovative combinations of media and methods of construction.

Association leaders depend on the collegial relationships they develop to build the arts they need for their organizations. The acquisition and maintenance of helmet masks, sculptures, and other works constitute a significant part of specialists’ training. When a man decides to install a local kòmò or kònò chapter or expand its presence, he builds a supply of powerful materials to use in the creation of new works, including helmet masks and sculptures. The organizations rely on animal fragments, plant matter, and other media that are often rare and difficult to procure (1979.206.150).

Multiple individuals contribute over time to the production of power association arts. In order to construct a helmet mask, a power association leader must identify a sculptor-blacksmith with the skills to carve a wood armature, a task often made more difficult by the secrecy surrounding such artistry. Sculptor-blacksmiths and their specialist patrons regulate the production of such powerful arts. They tend to divulge the names of artists responsible for wood helmet mask armatures on a need-to-know basis. They recognize that some people might try to attack the carvers who assist power associations in their campaigns against violence by carving the bases that ultimately become some of the most effective tools the organizations wield to combat malevolence. Once the specialist locates a skilled carver, the two discuss the commission. If they agree on the terms and fulfill them to each other’s satisfaction, the leader then acquires a freshly carved wood armature that serves as a base for the new helmet. He oversees the addition of flora, fauna, and other materials to the mask’s surface to transform the wood sculpture into a dynamic assemblage and a focal point of his kòmò or kònò chapter (1979.206.124). Specialists combine materials in an infinite number of ways to create unique works.

Performance is an integral part of the organizations’ assertion of power. Power association leaders also acquire full-body outfits sewn from locally produced cotton that has been dyed in a vegetal bath and covered with bird feathers. Members don their chapters’ helmet masks and full-body outfits in elaborate masquerades staged in outside arenas. They demonstrate their dance skills during events designed to identify aggressive action and address threats to individuals’ health and prosperity. The distinctive arts and performances power associations sponsor allow local chapters and their members to gain prestige and differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Power association leaders highlight their abilities to wield natural resources and spiritual energy through their masks, sculptures, and performances. Yet, they also limit access to their arts, especially those packed with potent and rare materials that could harm innocent spectators. Each local chapter therefore establishes its own restrictions based upon its unique arts. Most kòmò and kònò chapters prohibit women and children from viewing their masks and sculptures in any context. They assert that an unauthorized glimpse can precipitate serious illness or even death. However, some chapters grant the women and children born under their protection authorization to attend their performances. Yet, even women who cannot see kòmò and kònò arts contribute to the success of local chapters when they seek leaders’ counsel and listen to nightlong performances from within darkened rooms. They recognize that power association leaders must develop considerable knowledge and personal networks in order to serve their constituents.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, power associations remain active patrons of the arts and are supported by some of the region’s intelligentsia and prominent diplomats. The masks and sculptures they sponsor are some of the most important tools that the institutions’ leaders use to do their work. To help them address their clients’ diverse needs and assert their abilities to effect change, power association leaders draw from a vast bank of knowledge and choose from an array of materials when they create their dynamic arts.