When looking at the arts of Africa, Oceania, and Indigenous Art of the Americas (AOA) we rarely know the specific individual who made an object. This differs from the European and American art historical cannon in which the artist plays a central role. Generally, we can identify not only the artist’s name but also their style, development, and aspects of their personal history. These are considered essential elements for understanding the work of European and American artists. The lack of this type of information for works in the AOA collection immediately classifies them and the cultures that made them as “other,” and sets them apart for viewers who have been trained to expect the same detailed information found in the Western canon. If the artist is unclear to a viewer who is already unfamiliar with AOA works and cultures, they may think vaguely of a maker or craftsman, if they think at all about the person responsible for creation. This thought process, along with the differences created through collecting practices and variance in cultures, often hinders the understanding and appreciation of art in AOA collections.
Before studying the artists in the museum’s AOA collection, it is important to acknowledge why, in many cases, we do not have this information. European and American collections of AOA objects often developed during periods of colonial exploration, exploitation, and bigotry. As a result, many objects were collected without acknowledging the artist’s name, because colonial collectors did not think that information was important. They did not place AOA works on the same level as European art. Most colonial collectors saw these objects not as art but as curiosities, as looted goods and trophies, and as souvenirs of their travels. Because of their collecting practices, these individuals were able to separate AOA collections even further from the Western canon. While this past neglect cannot be corrected, an introduction to the artists responsible for the masterpieces in the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection is an excellent start for developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of the arts of Africa, Oceana, and the Indigenous Americas.
While the name of the artist who created a particular work is typically unavailable for non-contemporary AOA works, we often know a good deal about the artist’s position within their community, and through that information can learn about that person. Among the Bamana peoples of West Africa, powerful masks (fig. 1) were made for the important and influential Kòmò Society, an organization tasked with using the powers of the nonvisible to help their community. Such masks contain a range of materials that relate to and help with the harnessing of these nonvisible powers. While we do not know the name of the artist who made this mask, we know the artist was a man, as Kòmò is a men’s association. We also know that he was powerful in his community. This is evident not only through the important role of the Kòmò Society within the larger community but also because the artist was able to work with materials relating to the nonvisible world—something that would be dangerous to those without the proper knowledge and ability. While we have had this mask in our collection since the early 1970s, we do not know all of the materials that are used. Some are visible such as wood, feathers, and animal hair but others are hidden, and we have not investigated further out of respect for what the Bamana peoples choose to keep secret. We also know that the rest of his community respected the artist’s role. When such a man died, his mask was no longer used, as he was the only one who knew the materials within the mask and it was considered too dangerous for anyone else to attempt to use it. When no longer in use the mask would be allowed to decompose or was sometimes given or sold to Western collectors.
Some art forms are also historically the domain of one gender, allowing us to gain insight into the artist in the absence of other information. For example, for many communities carving was a man’s art form, while other techniques such as weaving, the creation of barkcloth, ceramics, and beadwork were typically women’s art. Because of these traditions, there are many objects within the collection that we can identify as being created by a male or female artist. Because of their technique, we know that figs. 2–4 were all created by female artists. A male artist created our Maasai shield (fig. 5), and, in fact, we know enough of the Maasai culture to also know that the artist was the owner and user of the shield.
Among the peoples of Polynesia we are also able to understand quite a bit about the role and position of an artist within the community, even when specific information about the artist is not known. Only members of the community who were masters of their art form did carving among the Polynesians. Carving was a sacred activity, as it passed mana—a life force and power possessed by all things in varying amounts—from the carver to the object. Because of this transfer of power, the artist had to be a high-ranking member of the community—someone with lots of mana himself—so that this transfer would not cause him harm. The mana passed into the carving would allow that object to function to its best ability.
This Māori weaving peg (fig. 6) is a striking example of the important role of the artist within the arts of Polynesia. If you look closely you can see that the lower half, while roughly carved, does not have the final details that have been added to the top. While we do not know why the artist stopped working, we do know why no one else finished it. The artist had poured their mana into the weaving peg, both through the physical art of carving as well as through prayers and chants during the carving process. It would not only be improper for another artist to finish this work but also could be dangerous to that individual, as mana can also pass from an object to a person and the new artist may not be prepared for that power.
It is also important to remember that just because we do not know the name of the artist does not mean that person was unknown to their community. Maya ceramics, such as the polychrome bowl seen here (fig. 7), were highly valued both for their function and as artistic creations. The owners of such ceramics often knew the provenance of the work—that is, who commissioned it and who owned it before them. They also valued knowing the name of the artist who had made a particular ceramic even years after its creation.
There are some works in the museum’s AOA collection whose makers we do know: for example, more recent objects that have been studied by students (fig. 8), others that were collected by scholars or individuals who understood the importance of such information, or those that were purchased on the contemporary art market (fig. 9). Another way an artist’s name may be known is through direct commission, such as the museum’s spectacular fantasy coffin in the form of a fish (fig. 10), which was created as a purely art object and not for use. In addition to information about the artist, the museum was also given photographs by the donor of the construction process. These images can be seen in the gallery along with the coffin itself.
There are some historical works in the AOA collection for which we know the name of the artist as well as a bit about their life, style, and personal history. The finial of a staff for the Lefem Society (fig. 11) was created by the Cameroonian artist Ateu Atsa. Not many African artists from before the twentieth century are known by name, but Ateu Atsa’s realism, his use of structural supports (as seen here below the hand holding a bowl), and the support of his biggest patron, a Gontem king, increased his reputation.
While we strive to understand and gather information about “the artist,” it is important to note how a particular culture values its artists/creators. The value of an artist can and does change from community to community and over time. For the women of San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century, ceramics and their creation was seen as a communal activity. Multiple women created a single vessel and there was no desire for the singular artist above all others, as is often the case for European and American art. The famous San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez worked with her husband, Julian, then later with her son and daughter-in-law (fig. 12). It was not customary for San Ildefonso artists to sign their work, because the idea of a singular artist was not valued, but the entire community and those outside of it knew and recognized Martinez’s work and her mastery of her skill. Before she began working with the anthropologist Edgar Hewett, she did not sign her work. Hewett wanted them signed so that they would be more desirable to American and European collectors, who valued the “signed work,” which they considered to be more important.
Hewett and Western collectors created and enforced the role of singular artist upon Martinez. They even asked her to sign works from the mid- to late 1920s, “Marie,” an Americanized version of her name. It is interesting to note that there are stories of Martinez signing her name to other people’s works as well, again demonstrating that she was not concerned with the “singular artist” and was well aware that her name would add value. A lucky outcome of this process is that scholars can date Martinez’s work based on the signature and its changes. Works created before 1923 are not signed at all, while those from the mid-1920s are signed, “Marie.” In the 1930s and 1940s Julian’s name appears and “Maria” is used. Later in her life, the names of her son and daughter-in-law also appear. Maria Martinez’s story, in which a Western idea of the singular artist is imposed on an artist and a culture, is a reminder that even when we strive to know more, we must also endeavor to understand and accept cultures that have standards different from our own.
While we don’t know the names or histories of all the artists whose creations are included in the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s African, Oceanic, and Indigenous Art of the Americas collection, our knowledge of the cultures from which the objects come allow us to better understand the artists and their role, skills, and position within the community.
Emma earned her master degree in Art History from Indiana University with a focus on the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and Indigenous Art of the Americas. In her role at the Eskeanzi Museum of Art she works with and conducts research on the AOA collection.
Share this feature
How to cite this page
Fulce, Emma. "But who made it? The role of the artist in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and Indigenous Art of the Americas." Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020. https://artmuseum.indiana.edu/collections-online/features/who-made-it-artists-in-africa-oceania-indigenous-americas.php.