THE EXHIBITION AND CONSERVATION OF AFRICAN OBJECTS: CONSIDERING THE NONTANGIBLE
STEPHEN P. MELLOR
3 OBSERVATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS
From this brief look at how some African objects function in cultural context, several observations can be made. In some African societies, objects are used as intermediaries, they mediate, placate, provide access to, respond to, or focus the attention of the supernatural world. Specialized individuals and highly structured behavior or activities are required to make effective use of the nontangible attributes of these objects. Unexpectedly, it is observed that although objects can be passed on for generations, even magic, sacred, and powerful objects are routinely and systematically inactivated, replaced, discarded, ignored, or destroyed within their cultural context.
From these observations, several deductions that may be applicable to other African cultures can be made that begin to illuminate an African perspective about the existence, use, and maintenance of nontangible attributes:
- Magic, sacredness, and power are cultural resources, and strict rules exist to maintain and perpetuate these resources. Naturally, these resources are most effective when they are retained within their cultural context.
- Magic, sacredness, and power are activated by specific cultural behavior.
- The use of magic, sacredness, and power is not static. Traditional African cultures are by nature dynamic and changing. This flexibility allows for the adjustment of behavior toward manifestations of the supernatural when previous behavior proves to be ineffective or no longer necessary.
Conclusions can be drawn that might express an African perception of objects exhibiting nontangible attributes and reflect an African perception of these objects outside of their cultural context:
- Africans do not view objects as having an independent life of their own. Instead, objects are an integral part of cultural activities and behaviors. These activities and behaviors are necessary to activate power and make objects effective. However, behavior is readily adjusted when objects prove to be ineffective. This dynamic and changing character of appropriate behavior toward magic, sacred, and power objects allows for a wide variety of options for the disposal of even culturally significant objects.
- Africans do not consider objects to embody spirits or ancestors. Objects themselves are not seen as simply habitations for supernatural forces or strictly as analogous representations of these forces.
- Africans do not perceive that objects carry magic or power outside of their cultural context. Objects embody the cultural resources of magic, sacredness, and power. These objects are used and maintained within the society for the benefit of individuals within those societies. As a matter of fact, many traditional Africans find it curious that these objects have any significance to Western cultures.