By Bérénice Geoffroy-Schneiter
The exhibition Femmes dans les arts d’Afrique (Women in African Art), presently on view at the Musée Dapper in Paris, could easily be dismissed at a glance as banal or even simplistic. But under the hand of curator Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau, it eloquently elucidates the concept of the Eternal Feminine in Africa in all its different faces, whether ritual, anthropological, or aesthetic. From sensual maternities to haughty effigies of queens, from initiation masks to the many accessories of raiment, the female image is omnipresent. In a world controlled by men, she is a counterbalance: necessary, respected, and even feared. With more than 150 pieces—including some exceptional loans from the museums in Tervuren, Antwerp, Munich, and Zurich—the installation features an extraordinary variety of artworks in different styles and relating to different ritual practices, all relating to this sweeping theme, which has given rise to sculptural creations of rare virtuosity.
With legs flexed, her chest punctuated with a pair of vigorous breasts, her head thrown to the side, she fills the first gallery of the exhibition with her presence. Even if we know her well, having seen her published or exhibited many times, the Bangwa Queen (part of the permanent collection of the Musée Dapper) sums up the ambivalence that characterizes every sculpture of a woman that has come from the adze of an African sculptor. There is no frivolous coquetry nor alluring sensuality characterized here. Instead sculptural inventiveness vies for dominance with visual strength. With this figure, we are far from the profane; rather, we are in the realm of the sacred and powerful. Gustav Conrau collected this sculpture in the late nineteenth century in the far western part of the Bamileke region, among the Western Bangwa. There, this magnificent effigy held the prestigious title of njuindem, or “woman of god.” This title was conferred only upon mothers of twins—women who were thought to possess divination skills and special powers linked to fertility. This information sheds light on the accessories depicted on the sculpture, such as the beaded collar with leopard teeth which she wears around her neck in the manner of a king and certain of his select nobles; her multiple bracelets and cowrie ornaments; and her rattle, the sound of which is intended to raise the spirits of the earth. But beyond any symbolic meaning, the eye is drawn to the extraordinary torsion and motion of the body, which falls somewhere between dance and possession. It is not by chance that this fascinating sculpture has passed through the hands of some of the greatest collectors, from Charles Ratton to Helena Rubinstein, who, some believe, posed naked with this sumptuous piece before the camera of Man Ray.