About the Collection

This text is from a past exhibition catalog from Sandor Teszler Library at Wofford College .

The Burdé-Monroe collection of African art was developed by Virginians Dr. Roger de la Burdé and Beverly Monroe. Dr. de la Burdé is a native of Poland and and began collecting African art with his father. He has made donations of both African and contemporary art to various colleges and universities. Beverly Monroe is a graduate of Limestone College and began working with Dr. de la Burdé in the late 1970's.

The works in this exhibition were collected primarily from expeditions to the Niger River and Guinea Coast areas of Africa in 1912-13, 1917, and 1947. The pieces on display were created in what is present day Mali, Nigeria, Biafra, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. At the time of these earliest expeditions, African art was just being discovered in European circles. In the mid 1980s the French and later the British and German governments occupied the areas. The British expedition of 1897 which destroyed the kingdom of Benin, also brought back to London a hoard of bronze works which prompted new interest in this exotic art.

The art of these areas of Africa is generally divided along geographic and linguistic lines into the Sudanese and Guinea cultures. In this collection are included works from several tribal cultures belonging to both the Sudanese and Guinea cultures. The Sudanese group is represented by the Dogon . The Guinea cultures are represented by Ashanti , Igalla, Ibo , Bini, Yoruba , Ishan, Ijo or Ijaw, Baule , and Idoma. The Ibibio tribal group is from the Cross River area and represents a blending of influences of the Guinea and Bantu culture of southern Africa.

The landscape of the region is bounded on the north by the Sahara Desert and shades through thc Sahara and grassy savanna areas to tropical rain forest along the Southern coast. The materials included in the collection reflect the resources of the region and are primarily wood–embellished with more perishable materials such as raffia or plant fibers, feathers, fur and leather–along with some examples of bronze, brass, iron, terra-cotta and stone.

Several distinct types of objects appear in the collection–masks, ikenga and other altar figures and objects, ancestral portraits, ceremonial staffs, and utensils.

Along the Guinea coast the art is characterized by a number of distinctive aspects of style, primarily expressed in terms of extensive complex of masks. The masking traditions are typically associated with initiation ceremonies and the veneration of ancestors, both oriented toward a sense of group identity. At another level the masks functioned in the context of tightly structured systems of social control exercising governmental functions. Among the Bedu people, for example, the masks cleanse the village of evil forces such as disease or witchcraft. They appear with some frequency, perhaps as often as ten or twelve times a year. The masks are re-painted before each appearance.

The ikenga is a personal shrine, intended to protect its devotee, often in very specific ways–to insure the strength of the arms–essential to success in hunting.

In approaching West African sculptural art, we must judge it on its own aesthetic merits and understand them within the context of the cultures that produced them. Critic Roy Sieber writes that African art is conservative by Western standards. That is, the work conformed to the expectations and norms of its audience. (Sculpture of Black Africa, 14.) Other writers have called it classical, in the sense of being public art. The meaning of each piece was public–everyone in the society would know its meaning and could share the experience of it.

West African art, writes Anthony Atmore, was not conceived in terms of beauty or other aesthetic notions. "Art was valued not for art's sake, not as an end in itself, but as possessing an integrative function making man, and his environment, whole. ... The object, the work of art, was the bearer of the forces of life. The artist, the sculptor, the maker of masks was a person who who could make contact with spiritual forces by the proper construction and use of artifacts." (West Africa,105.) Thus, The created work of art also had a functional basis, usually intended to insure the present or future security of the individual, his family, or his nation.

There is also an element of the necessity of these works to the well-being of the society in which the artist worked. Unlike Western art, West African art served ritual functions, and as focal points for the interaction between the spirit world and daily life and action.