From idol to art. African ‘objects-with-power’: a challenge for missionaries, anthropologists and museum curators
Objects with power, so common in Africa, are neither beautiful nor easy to understand, and as such were a challenge for missionaries, anthropologists and curators of ethnographic museums from the moment they got involved with Africa, in the middle of the 19th century. Each group of professionals tried to come to grips with these objects, reacting – over time – quite differently on them. The three professions are shown to appropriate the meanings of these strange objects to suit their own objectives, dependent on historical era and type of field exposure. Missionaries tended to see them as expressions of heathenism, while anthropologists started to look for ‘master symbols’ and gradually discovered their emic meanings. Africa curators were usually not in a position to research these objects in depth in their museums. This book takes three of these objects as its starting point, ikenga, minkisi and asuman, and analyses the processes of professional appropriation. The aim is to glean how these professions learned from each other – or not -, to sketch processes of attribution of meaning, and to contribute to a better understanding of the role of objects of power in their culture. As such it is also a study in the materiality of African religions, a new approach in that discipline. The research is based on available literature and makes use of the author’s own experiences as a missionary, anthropologist, Africa curator, and lecturer in museology.

Year of publication: 2015
Series: African Studies Collection
Volume: 59



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1876-018x , 978-94-6173-720-5
Harrie Leyten
African Studies Centre