This collaborative exhibition between Douglas Dawson Gallery and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, both of Chicago, explores the complex role of fetish in traditional African culture. While often misunderstood in the West, fetish in the context of African art is used to define the objects used by traditional animistic African cultures to control and disseminate the powerful secret knowledge that kept society in balance with the dangerous spirit world.
Until recently many African cultures maintained secret societies into which young males were initiated, usually upon reaching puberty, and instructed in the secret knowledge and rituals necessary for maintaining social cohesion. Associated with the societies were objects imbued with particular powers that functioned as tools for the perilous negotiations between worlds. Early Europeans viewed such objects with great derision on both religious and aesthetic grounds. Only with the evolution of the vocabulary of 20th century modern art has the fetish object been seen in a new perspective. Many fetish objects are fundamentally imponderable. Their conceptual foundation is understood, if ever in totality, by a select few mature members of a given cult. Aspects of meaning are gradually dispensed often in metaphoric or symbolic narrative. They are a physical manifestation of abstract knowledge and in that sense have a certain affinity with 20th century Western sculpture. They are also powerful.
Fetish objects were also created on a more personal level apart from the secret societies. Individual supplicants commissioned specific, and often very personal, fetish
objects to address a particular objective; health, defense from spells, pregnancy, divination, and so forth. The artist/craftsman collaborated with the shaman to produce an object that was often addressed to a specific spirit or deity. The object would be taken to the altar of the supplicant where sacrifices would be made and acts of veneration performed. Many of the objects in this exhibition fall into this category. The rich, crusty, layered surfaces are a result of this history of repeated sacrifices.
The majority of the approximately fifty objects and textiles in this exhibition are from West and Central Africa. They include both figurative and abstract sculpture, masks, ceramics, textiles and iron and copper alloy pieces used in divination.
Interest in African art has evolved from the exclusive domain of anthropologists and African art historians to a much broader audience peopled by many whose primary interest is contemporary art. This new audience looks beyond specific ethnographic issues and connects African art with issues that inform contemporary art. Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago’s pre-eminent contemporary art gallery, is an ideal context to present this enigmatic art form; African fetish, to a new and receptive audience. While we cannot know the exact meaning of most of these objects they nonetheless project a profound sense of power, mystery, and art that is very accessible to the 21st century eye.