As she walks into the Hauser Gallery she is drawn to the exotic wall of African art. The array of masks, statues and granary doors create a grand display of varying shapes and ornaments. There are masks large and small, comical, scary, zoomorphic, anthropomorphic and abstract.
In arranging the wall I have been compelled to situate the large yellow Bamileke bush cow in a very central position. My motive being that most of the artifacts are of a rich dark earth tone while the bright yellow and hints of red on the bush cow simply bring the wall to life.
But it’s not just the color. Our Bamileke mask is unique in that it is the only mask in our collection in which every millimeter of space is decorated. The Venetian seed beads and cowrie shells leave no spot of this wood mask uncovered. All the other masks have varying degrees of ornamentation and scarification interspersed with bare surface. But she is drawn to this mask.
In an article entitled A Robe Fit for a Chief, Dominique Malaquais talks about the art of excess in the Bamileke, and notes that the dominant element in Bamileke art is the Horror Vacui (the fear of a vacum or empty space).
Kingship and the hierarchy of chiefs is central to Bamileke society. Ornamentation is highly codified. Anyone can own objects adorned with beads, but only the ruling class or a chief can own an object completely covered in beads. There is a direct connection between the profusion of decorative images to social status.
According to their subjects Bamileke chiefs are life itself. Life flows from the grace of a chief. All human, animal and plant life; all life within a chief’s domain issues from that chief. Images alone cannot express this absolute connection between the chief and all fecundity. The only way to express it is in a sheer profusion of images and decorations.
And the colors. Often in red (ours is a wonderfully rare yellow) the colors are meant to dazzle and enhance the spectacle of excess. More is more.
Malaquais also makes the argument that there is indeed a balance in Bamileke art. It is gained by distance. When seen from a proper distance the dancer’s costumes, masks and royal carvings are part of an ensemble meant to be appreciated as a whole and within this whole there is space and balance (as in the physical space between the dancers, or the space between the columns of a carving).
She sees the large yellow Bamileke bush cow mask prominently on the wall at the gallery. Up close it is a marvel of intricate bead work, a graceful display of excess. But from just a slight distance it brings the entire wall to life. It seems an organic whole and yet speaks to the variety and profusion of life itself.