Telling Objects: Social Order
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All societies seek methods to attain order and to clearly distinguish right and wrong. How is this accomplished? How do parents and communities teach such things? One way is a visually established authority. Every American can identify a police officer. When making an important announcement, the President of the United States stands on a podium featuring the presidential seal. The Queen of England has a special throne. Another teaching method is by means of stories that illustrate desirable traits such as truth, honesty, compassion, and generosity. Most adults can recall a folktale or Bible story told by a parent or grandparent in their efforts to instill admirable qualities in the young. As a mother, I find myself often reciting to my daughter folktales such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Little Red Hen, and The Honest Woodsman. Before her birth I dismissed the usefulness of these stories. Today I see their value.
In like manner, each African culture has a recognized visual language that asserts who is the leader, who is a good person, and how to tell right from wrong. Four objects are exhibited that help to identify important people - a chief's backrest, a chief's throne, a robe of honor, a beaded skirt, and a woman's stool. The backrest places the chief in a position of leisure and comfort to be served by others. The chair frames the chief with visual formality and provides a privileged location as he sits upright while others stand or sit on the ground. A fine, expensive robe given as a gift from an authority figure to a subordinate prominently identifies good works and enhanced position. A special stool presented to a young woman recognizes maturity.
Masks once again play a role. Three different masks are shown that figure in dances emphasizing correct behavior. Face Mask (Kidumu) from the Teke culture was used in a ceremony reinforcing social order. The circular format with repeating circular motifs in a symmetrical composition proclaims unity, order and balance. Power emanates from the Guro Forehead Mask. The flaring nostrils and forceful posture of the antelope convey the message that this is a force not to be challenged, that all must rally around in support. The mask is used in deciding peace or war as well as guilt or innocence. Conveying the horror of consequence is another powerful tool in teaching right from wrong. The Face Mask (Idiok Ekpo) portrays what one will become for doing evil--a terrifying and grotesque ghost. It is reminiscent of the specter of Marley in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
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