The Tropics

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ALL peoples feel the need, at some moment in their history, to come into that prolonged and fecund contact with the world of the senses from which there comes forth the verbal, musical, or plastic representation of the mind. But each one of them speaks its own language; thus a given people which has composed poems or orchestrated symphonies remains incapable of rising to plastic generalizations of a distinguishing accent. Outside of the French, the Italians, the Spaniards, the Flemings, the Dutch, sometimes the Germans—I hesitate to say the English—the societies of mediaeval or modern Europe have left the industrial art of the people only to attempt imitations, more or less disguised, of the great foreign schools. Now all the races, even the most primitive, possess the faculty of decorating pots, carving wooden figurines, making furniture, weaving stuffs, and carving metal. That is to say that any people in Europe which has not, in the general onward sweep of Occidental culture, known how to utilize the stammerings of these rudimentary arts, to make up a language of its own, a living language that expresses it in its highest desires, must seek to realize them otherwise than by images, which it does not know how to use because it does not love them. Besides, as civilization becomes universal, it perverts the needs of the people's soul, and the manifestations of that soul take on more and more of a mongrel character. To find a primitive art that retains its sap and can impart new and strong emotions to sensibilities that have preserved or regained their first ingenuousness, we must go to those peoples who have remained primitives.

It is in the tropics or near the polar regions that men, in the heart of modern times, have preserved practically intact the spirit of their most distant ancestors. It is only there that they have not passed beyond the stage of naturistic fetishism and the grouping by tribes. In one region the heat is too intense; in the other region the cold is too severe. Here the seasons are too distinct and too heavy; there they are too torpid and of too slow a rhythm. Among the peoples of the tropics, even the most rudimentary effort to get food and shelter is practically unnecessary, the effort to rise is too hard, and with the polar peoples the only use of effort is to secure an existence, which is vegetative and precarious, the nature of the country being too ungrateful for the inhabitant to imagine that he could modify his surroundings to his profit. Finally, neither in the one region nor in the other have any great human migrations passed, to renew the race, to bring it the breath of the world outside, because the course of these migrations has been turned aside by the ice, the deserts, the overdense forests, and the too-vast oceans.

The black race is perhaps that one among the backward peoples which has manifested the least aptitude for raising itself above the elementary human instincts that result in the formation of language, the first social crystallizations, and the industries indispensable to them. Even when transplanted in great numbers to places like North America that have reached the most original, even if not the highest, degree of civilization that we find in modern times, the black man remains, after centuries, what he was—an impulsive child, ingenuously good, and ingenuously cruel; as in the case of other children, all of his acts spring from immediate sensation. And yet his was the only one of the great primitive races which, inhabiting a massive continent in large numbers, lacked neither arms nor heads to modify its surroundings, discover new relationships, and create new ideas. But this continent is divided into twenty sections by the sands, the mountains, the brush, and the virgin forests; it is infested with wild beasts, it is feverish and torrid, and is cut in two by the equator. Its northern shores, those on the Mediterranean, are habitable for white men, and only these regions have, from the beginnings of history, participated in man's great future.

However, if we revert to the earliest times we discover an Africa that was probably identical with what it is at this hour, and consequently on the same level with that of the tribes that peopled the north and the west of Europe—perhaps on a higher level. War and commerce created constant relationships between ancient Egypt and the Sudan, and Central Africa participated in the development of the civilization of the Nile. From that period on, iron was worked in Nigritia, while the old world hardly knew yet how to work in bronze, and the African jewelry that is still made by the Somalis of East Africa, the Pahouins, the Ashantis, and the Haoussas of West Africa, was brought by caravans from the confines of Upper Egypt to the markets of Thebes and Memphis. The jewelry is heavy, of a thick and compact material, with incrustations of blue and red stones whose opaque glow spots the circles of mat gold or of somber silver. Geometrical figures are dear to all primitive peoples, whether they paint their pots, decorate their huts, weave their clothing, or stripe the skin of their faces or their bodies; and cutting into the African jewelry in every direction we find again these geometrical forms—short, fat, dense, and pressed closely together. As mathematics, the science of inert forms, preceded biology, so geometrical ornament preceded living ornament, and certain child peoples, incapable of interpreting life, have arrived, in ornamental art, at the highest degree of power. The human mind proceeds always from the simple to the complex, but when the great artist appears to unite the most differentiated living forms through a single arabesque, or when modern science tries to express all its conquests in mathematical symbols, the mind is invariably brought back to primitive sources, the very ones at which instinct slaked its thirst. The result is always the impressive agreement between the most obscure feeling and the highest form of reason.

In general, we need not seek, in the art of the Negroes, anything more than that still unreasoned feeling which merely obeys the most elementary demands of rhythm and of symmetry. When the youthful peoples follow the instinct which urges them to impose on the living forms that come from their hands a vaguely architectural appearance, an awkward, rough symmetry, they unquestionably obey an imperious desire for synthesis, but this synthesis is of the kind that precedes experience and not the kind that follows it. The sculpture in wood of the Negroes is still very far from the great Egyptian sculpture, for example, whose advent coincides with that of a social and religious edifice of the most powerful architecture. Perhaps it is a first sketch or presentiment of Egyptian art that we see in Negro sculpture—one which may carry us back almost as far as the appearance of man in Africa. From such a beginning may well have come the sudden start for the ascent, through the long centuries in the great fertile valley where the black and white races fuse. Then, after the slowest, the loftiest, the most conscious stylization, after the art of the Nile has sunk into the sands, the Negro again prolongs the immobile inspiration of Africa until our own time. But to him we must not look for metaphysical abstractions, for he gives us only his sensations, as short-lived as they are violent—an attempt to satisfy the most immediate needs that spring from a rudimentary fetishism. And perhaps it is even because of his fearful candor in showing us rough surfaces, short limbs, bestial heads, and drooping breasts that he reaches his great expressiveness. These sculptures in wood—black wood on which the pure blues, the raw greens, the brown reds take on a violence so naïve that it becomes terrifying—have a simplicity in their ferocity, an innocence in their mood of murder, that command a kind of respect. Brute nature circulates in them, and burning sap and black blood. Although man is afraid of them, he cannot help recognizing and loving his impulses—rendered concrete in the crawling crocodiles and the crouching gorillas which are sketched by long strokes in the wood and which decorate the doors and beams of his hut or the sides of his tomtoms.

How are we to discover, in the confusion and the ebb and flow of the tribes and the industries of Africa, the stronger currents which would have led, without a colonization of the continent by the European peoples, to a conquest by the blacks of a more enlightened inner world? The Haoussas and the Ashantis, especially, devote themselves to all the basic industries—weaving, ceramics, iron-working, gold-working, embroidery, jewelry, and carving in wood and ivory, and those of the Negroes of the Sudan or of western Africa who yield to the current of Moslem propaganda have a presentiment, on coming into contact with the spiritual spark of Islam, of the existence of a higher life. They frequently surpass the Berber artisan in working metal and leather for articles of luxury. But we must go back farther into the past of this dark land—this land fertilized by blood—and find the traces of a need belonging to a still very confused but strongly affirmed aesthetic order, since destroyed among some of the African peoples, by the immigrations of other black men and the invasions of the whites. Among the natives of Guinea, Niger, the Gaboon, and the Ivory Coast, we find idols, dance and war masks, objects of daily life, and weapons whose prototypes undoubtedly date back to a very ancient period, perhaps an immemorial period, and these works bear witness to a desire for stylization that is not alone very accentuated, but also powerfully original. The plastic synthesis, here, borders on geometry. The ensemble of the work is subjected to a kind of schematic rhythm which permits itself the boldest deformations, but always allows certain expressive summits of the object interpreted to remain. The kingdom of Benin, which was one of the first to receive the Portuguese navigators and in which there developed, doubtless about the end of the Middle Ages, the greatest school of Africa, had admirable bronze workers. By their powerful feeling for embryonic life they became very near relatives of the archaic Chinese sculptors, of the Khmers and the Javanese. They twisted black serpents together to make of the rough and scaly coils in which they writhe the supports for copper stools. Their pots often took on the aspect of a human head and with lines of great purity; other vessels were ornamented with strongly built rude, and very summary sculptures in which the familiar silhouettes of the dog, the lion, the cock, the elephant, and the crocodile are indicated, sometimes with a strong tinge of irony. At this period, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Africa seemed, moreover, to be emerging from its long nightmare. The Bushmen, contemporaries of the Negroes of Benin, peopled the south of the continent; far from the equator, the deserts, and the forests of Central Africa, they lived in a healthier climate where stock raising is possible, where wild beasts are rarer and game is abundant. They could, had they persisted, have given a decisive impetus to the mind of the Negro races. Living more often from rapine than from hunting, their nomadic and adventurous life multiplied their relationships with the tribes and the soil of Africa at the same time that it sharpened their senses and subtilized their mind. On the walls of the grottoes, where they hid the herds they had stolen, they have left frescoes of red ocher in which we see, living again, their hunts, their wars, their dances, and beasts that flee or march in line. The form is only an approximation, but the flat spot is vibrant, and the silhouettes, looking like shadows on a wall, march with a single movement—oxen that are pursued, antelopes climbing a slope, great gray birds crossing the sky.

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