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|A NOTE FROM THE DIRECTOR
The issues raised in my film, FANG: An Epic Journey, are sufficiently complex to warrant framing by
specialists. To that end, I invited a group of colleagues with different backgrounds to discuss the
questions FANG raised (or failed to raise) for use as an introduction for a wider public. I introduced the
question "Who owns African art?" Of course, the debate is inconclusive because that issue and most of
the others raised here can never be definitively resolved. The answers attach to beliefs more often than
It is my hope that this discussion, and the film it accompanies, will help individuals reexamine and clarify
their own convictions. More deeply, this project may help the reader uncover and perhaps reach a new
understanding of the reasoning—through political, intellectual, autobiographical and other layers of
belief—that led to the positions he or she already holds.
|THE HISTORY BEHIND THE FILM
This life history of an art object is a work of fiction, but everything in it is based on real events.
No single object followed this entire path, but many different African objects followed parts of it. Most of
the human characters in the film are based on actual people, and our hero is a polymer resin cast of an
authentic Fang figure in a private collection.
Two identical, hollow, pale gray casts were painstakingly made for filming by the master mold maker of
the Metropolitan Museum, then painted their respective colors. The original sculpture today is brownish
black and lacks both its back post and phallus. In both areas traces of cutting are evident. The darkened
cast is identical to the original, but in making the other version we had to surmise the form of the missing
parts based on similar figures (see Fang, 1991, p. 54-55). Because scenes in the film were not shot in
the order of the story, the black version had to be repeatedly cut apart and glued together.
|The rubber trader in the first scene is based on Gunther Tessmann (1884-1969), a German ethnologist,
explorer, collector and author who traveled in Cameroon and Gabon between 1904 and 1917, collecting
many Fang objects for the museum in Lubeck. Tessmann is the author of many articles and the definitive
work, Die Pangwe, (1913). An interesting short biography by Philippe Laburthe-Tolra addresses his work and
his somewhat tortured personality. He was one of many Europeans, marginalized at home—in his case as a
homosexual—who preferred life in Africa away from his countrymen.
The second scene evokes a store for rubber automobile accessories where the teenage Paul Guillaume
worked as a clerk in 1911. There he first encountered African art and met some of the leading buyers and
sellers of the day. At the time, African objects brought back by sailors or traders were sold inexpensively in
curio shops, cafes, and flea markets.
|Georges Braque's studio (above), photographed in 1911, formed the basis for the artist's
studio set in the next scene. Beginning in 1906-07, avant garde artists in Paris began to
collect African objects and to integrate some of the formal ideas into their work. They
generally had fanciful ideas about these objects, having almost no knowledge of—and
little interest in—the African
artists who had made them or the ideas the objects expressed.
|By 1914 Paul Guillaume had become an art dealer of the most advanced contemporary art, and African
art. He was one of the earliest and to this day one of the most influential dealers in the African field.
Objects that can be shown to have passed through his hands have added value today. He was the main
formative influence on Alfred Barnes, persuading him to acquire important African and modern artworks
now the Barnes Foundation Museum, near Philadelphia. An eloquent advocate, Guillaume also co-
authored a book on African art and helped convince the art world that African objects were truly art. There
is no evidence that he personally altered works of art in the way shown in the film, though objects were
routinely "cleaned," mounted on bases, and labeled by dealers and collectors who felt no compunction
about "improving" them.
The "Revue Negre" poster from 1926 shows the American performer Josephine Baker—who helped fueled
the rage for Black culture in Paris of the twenties. It is by the graphic artist Paul Colin.
The "abstract" gallery display in this scene replicates the 1914 installation in New York which was the first
exhibition anywhere of African art "shown solely from the point of view of art." It was organized by Marius de
Zayas, designed by Edward Steichen, and held at "291," (below) the gallery on Fifth Avenue established by
Alfred Steiglitz and the Photo-Secession group. Paul Guillaume, whose own gallery opened in Paris the
same year, lent objects to that exhibition. Installation design for African art has remained remarkably close
to this model for nearly a century.
|Our German professor is based upon Julius Lips who was professor and Director of the Ra
utenstraucht-Joest ethnographic museum in Cologne when Hitler came to power. According to Nazi
doctrine, African art was "degenerate" along with modern and Jewish art. Though Lips was not Jewish,
his research and collection of photographs of artworks by Africans and other "lower races" depicting
Europeans was considered "an insult to Hitler" and "a crime against the race." He was hounded from
his post and fled to New York in 1934 where he joined the faculty of Columbia University. His book,
Savage Hits Back or the White Man Through Native Eyes opens with a moving account of these
events, followed by sometimes hilarious sculptures portraying exotic white people.
African sculptures were sometimes cut to enhance their resemblance to high art: the back post might
be removed from a Fang figure; a staff surmounted by a figure might be transformed into a figure on
a base. Large objects were also cut to facilitate transportation. This is the only event in the film not
based on a known case.
I doubt that Man Ray, the American Dadaist artist, ever met Julius Lips, but he did photograph African
objects and he visited Hamburg in 1933. His portrait of Nancy Cunnard, and the photograph "Noir et
Blanche" seen in the film were both taken in 1926.
The New York book party in the next scene is an imagined event hosted by Nancy Cunnard who was
an ardent supporter of Black causes and edited the massive anthology Negro (1934) which she also
published. She was friendly with many members of the European avant-garde and was photographed
by Man Ray wearing an armful of African ivory bracelets. (Her speech is abstracted from her writing).
For her living room we took the liberty of shooting in the beautiful room in New York designed by the
architect Alvar Aalto in the early 1960s with his poetic abstract of a Finnish forest.
Making a speech in this scene is the educator, writer and philosopher Alain Locke (1886-1954) whose
book, The Negro in An: a Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art, was
published in 1940. Locke was the first African-American Rhodes scholar in 1907 (and the only one
until the 1960s!). Locke, who was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, first encountered African
art in Germany in 1910-11 and became an early collector and writer on African art and its relationship
to African-American art. He taught at Howard University most of his life and left his collection to the
University Museum when he died. For the purposes of the film, in the opening and final scenes, he is
shown alive and still writing in the recent past.
The closing scene was shot in the Brooklyn Museum where their extraordinary Mvai (Gabon) Fang
figure can be seen. In real life, however, the Fang figure from which the cast was made is going to join
the collection of the Yale Art Gallery.
Lips, Julius E.
The Savage Hits Back or the White Man Through Native
Eyes, New Haven, 1937.
"From Africa," in "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: the
Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, New York, 1984,
pp. 124-175. (information on Guillaume and African art in Paris).
"Les fragments du ciel aux cultes du mal; Considerations
a propos de Die Pangwe de G. Tessmann" in Fang,
1991, p. 11-79.
Ph. Laburthe-Tolra and Ch. Falgayrettes-Leveau
Fang, Paris, 1991
Die Pangwe, Berlin, 1913.
|IDOL BECOMES ART!
Produced and edited by Susan Vogel
Round table discussion held in New York, 2000.
ROWLAND ABIODUN, PROFESSOR AMHERST COLLEGE
JEAN FRITTS, SPECIALIST SOTHEBY'S
BARBARA KIRSHENBLATT-GIMBLETT PROFESSOR, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
ALISA LAGAMMA, CURATOR METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
ERIC ROBERTSON ART DEALER
ENID SCHILDKROUT, CURATOR AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY