Mad In Pursuit Notebook

Baule sculpture woman childOrder and Chaos: the eternal struggle

5.18.2013. This morning I entered the mysterious world of the Baule tribe, who live in Ivory Coast, Africa.

Before bed last night I did my routine chore of checking auction catalogs against items in our collection, just to see what the market is doing. I got pulled in by figures from the Baule people.

As it happens, Jim had a book.

I started reading, to educate myself, since we have four sculptures from this tribe.

What struck me first was the careful delineation the people make between the village and the wild. Village life is meant to be quiet, serene, safe. It looks inward upon itself and removes all evidence of the wild--for example, by replacing the big forest trees with small bushes and fruit trees. Aha (I think), order being imposed upon chaos; pattern being imposed on unpredictability. Sacred space.

The statues such as ours have a specific purpose. Their beauty invites untamed and possibly mischievous bush spirits or other wild powers. The spirit enters the ritually constructed statue and becomes "localized." (Maybe like a genie in a bottle?) Once localized, the spirit can then be contacted and put to work for the benefit of the owner. Again, we see the theme of imposing order upon chaos.

A sacred act.

This seems to be the story of human nature. We tame. We seek to exercise dominion over nature. The world is crazy and unpredicable. Death and destruction explode around us. Not knowing "what next" frightens us to the core. But we are smart. We are powerful. We stand ready to believe that the powers of God, nature, and the universe can be wrestled into some kind of container -- a body of knowledge, a religion, a taxonomy, a government, an ideology, a city -- to work on our behalf.

Jim and I talked about it today. Isn't collecting a way of organizing a combination of objects and knowledge according to certain criteria and standards? Isn't managing the collections about imposing (my) order on (let's just say for argument's sake, Jim's) exuberance?

We are about to take a roadtrip westward. The first time we went through Iowa, my imagination was thrilled by the idea of the first pioneers who thought they could tame the massive plains into productive farmland. Same thing in Kansas. Gobsmacked. Yep, take this windswept prairie, grow stuff, transport it by wagons, then trains, float it down rivers, get it to market -- make a living here in America. Yeah. Imposing order on chaos. Yeah, a sacred act. An act of faith. We can do it.

Well, of course there are unintended consequences. We humans always take things to their extremes. But that's a topic for another day...

The statue shown here depicts a mother and child for a spirit to inhabit. This reminds me that I should look upon these artifact not simply as works of beauty. But I should also be respecting the spirits that reside in them.


African Art Western Eyes. Susan Vogel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997

The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. Mircea Eliade. Harcourt Brace, 1959.