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Thumbs up for ......
The “Night Side” of Art? A consideration of two Naga objects in my collection.
In 1989 Professor Sally Price took a swipe at the tribal art world with the publication of her book Primitive Art in Civilized Places.  It was, said a Newsweek writer, “A witty, but scholarly, indictment of the whole primitive art business.” According to the late Denis Dutton, a Professor of Philosophy with an interest in Tribal art, it was, “a subject in dire need of sober, serious discussion and analysis.”  But Dutton, like many others, was not wholly satisfied with Price’s findings, adding, “She spoils her case by choosing easy targets and basing her criticisms on doubtful and false generalizations about primitive peoples and about European attitudes to primitive art… For example, in her chapter, “The Night Side of Man,” she quotes qualified researchers such as Werner Muensterberger and Edmund Leach and more-or-less armchair aesthetes such as Georges Bataille and Kenneth Clark. Her purpose is to show that European peoples impute to primitive art “nocturnal darkness and fear of monsters” as well as an untamed sexuality. She also says that Westerners treat primitive artists as bohemian nonconformists, and cast primitive societies ‘into the mold (sic) of an artistic counter-culture.’ If these assertions constituted a fair characterization of how European critics see primitive art, she’d have a point. But they are neither fair nor accurate.” 
The term “the night side of man” comes from the writing of André Malraux:
Primitive sculptures were once banned from the museum; now they enter it. Not only because they are sculptures of half the earth, and of much more than half of time, but also because beyond the frontier figures of Sumer and Mexico, this crucial and ageless art, so strangely relevant to our own, is the art of our next investigation: the night side of man. 
Sally Price believes that the “Noble Savage” and the “Pagan Cannibal” are, so far as Westerners are concerned, but two sides of the same coin. “The imagery used to convey Primitive Artists’ otherness employs a standard rhetoric of fear, darkness, pagan spirits and eroticism”  and gives this quotation by Jean-Louis Paudrat to confirm her point.
The missionaries, about whom Voltaire humorously remarked, “every statue is a devil for them, every assembly a sabbat, every symbolic figure a talisman, every brahman a sorcerer,” went out to exorcise the “demons” and to destroy their “fétiçaoes”, their “charms”. Thus, his superstitions place the Negro at the very origins of the history of mankind, immediately after the Fall. His being in league with the Evil One colours the terminology used. Nevertheless, as survivors of the earliest chapter in the history off the world, they are a living witness to the fantastic, the irrational and the imaginary in primeval man. This mixture of repulsion and attraction for the abscure (sic) and aboriginal is at the root not only of a lasting incomprehension of the sculptural creations of Africa but also of a long neglect in describing objectively the societies themselves and their organization. 
Although Paudrat was writing about Africa one feels that he believed that his views could equally apply to all types of “primitive” art and Sally Price appears to believe that many people today still hold onto similar beliefs.
The tradition of envisioning the life of Primitives in terms of diabolical rites and superstitions did not die with Voltaire or the early missionaries, nor has it been significantly eroded, at the level of “received wisdom”, by the ethnographic record that has been amassed over the intervening centuries. On the contrary, one finds its legacy alive and well, permeating every corner of our late twentieth-century common sense, and promoting images of fear and darkness, often with side journeys into unharnessed eroticism and cannibalistic feasts. 
Why do I mention all this? Well, because I really do wonder if Professor Price is correct to say that this “legacy” is “alive and well” in the “late twentieth-century”. Yes, I agree that when Europeans first came into contact with people from other cultures there were misunderstandings. Take this example from the explorer Mungo Park, written during his 1795 expedition to West Africa:
On the 7th (December) I departed from Konjour, and slept at a village called Malla (or Mallaing); and on the 8th, about noon, I arrived at Kolor, a considerable town, near the entrance into which I observed, hanging upon a tree, a sort of masquerade habit, made of the bark of trees, which I was told on enquiry belonged to Mumbo Jumbo. This is a strange bugbear, common to all the Mandingo towns, and much employed by the pagan natives in keeping their women in subjection; for as the kafirs are not restricted in the number of their wives, every one marries as many as he can conveniently maintain; and as it frequently happens that the ladies disagree among themselves, family quarrels sometimes rise to such a height that the authority of the husband can no longer preserve peace in his household. In such cases, the interposition of Mumbo Jumbo is called in, and is always decisive. 
But this was written over 200 years ago, and I believe that most of us have moved on from such beliefs today.  But why did such misunderstandings come about in the first place? It was, I suppose, what some people call a “clash of cultures”. Take, for example, the Buddhist bodhisattva Manjushri who is frequently depicted carrying a flaming sword aloft. To some people in the west this might seem to suggest violence – a very un-Buddhistic attitude. In fact, Manjushri’s sword is there to cleave through ignorance, one of the fetters that stand between the human state and the Buddha state. Manjushri is there to help humanity, all of humanity, and the sword is a “weapon” only in the sense that it can be used wisely to rid us of our ignorance and delusions. And the same may be said of the “wrathful” Buddhist deities, those terrifying figures, such as Mahakala, Hayagriva and Yamantaka, which appear in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism. Again, we may say that these figures are not there to scare and terrify, but rather are there to help the practitioner achieve Buddhahood.  Whenever difference cultures have come together in the past there have often been misunderstandings on the part of both cultures. For my part, I believe that the only way forward is for people to come together, while respecting cultural differences, rather than to deliberately stay apart. We can never achieve unity without understanding, and art is one of the ways that can help us to achieve such understanding.
My own interests lie mainly with African art, but, over the years, I have also been drawn to objects from other parts of the world. Some years ago the London based New Zealand dealer Ben Hunter showed my two objects that had been collected towards the end of the 19th century from the Naga People. The first is a small wooden mask that would have once been worn around the neck. It measures 9 cms in height, is black in colour, and has four coloured beads attached to holes in each ear-lobe. (The beads may have been added at a later date.) I presume that, originally, there would have been bone or glass eyes attached to the eye-sockets, though these are now missing.
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