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The Art of Weapons: Selections from the Collection

Hood Quarterly, spring 2014
Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, Curator of African Art

The Art of Weapons draws attention to the Hood Museum of Art’s rich and extensive collection of exceptional examples of African weapons. It marks the first time that the objects are presented together in an exhibition. Fashioned from iron, metal, brass, copper, bronze, animal hide, wood, and plant materials such as raffia, the weapons are of impeccable craft, beauty, and elegance. Several of them show intricate designs and geometric and linear patterns embellished on their surfaces. While some of the weapons command attention with their spiral forms, curves, and multiple thrusting edges, others have beautifully carved anthropomorphic or zoomorphic handles. Altogether, the objects represent artistic traditions from East, West, Central, North, and Southern African sub-regions. They encompass a breadth of cultural groups: Tiv (Nigeria), Fon (Benin Republic), Shilluk and Nuer (Sudan), Kuba, Luba, Ngala, Mangbetu, and Azande (DRC), Zulu (South Africa), Baganda (Uganda), Oromo (Ethiopia), Fang (Gabon), and Masaai (Kenya), among several others in the exhibition.

Prior to colonialism in Africa, weapons served important purposes in multiple and at times overlapping contexts, including combat, hunting, ceremonial, prestige, and parade activity. They reflected the histories, worldviews, design traditions, and idiosyncratic styles of different cultural and ethnic groups. They also reflected cross-cultural appropriations and shared aesthetic concepts among neighboring ethnic groups. In this pre-colonial past, skilled craftsmen enjoyed the patronage of neighboring cultures and even those that were farther afield as a result of their superlative talent and fame. There were also itinerant craftsmen who moved among different social and cultural groups. Symbolically, weapons conveyed authority, political leadership, strength, identity, divine power, life, and death. Some were part of the insignia of royalty and were displayed in imperial courts. Because of the high value attached to certain weapons, they were used as currency for trade and commerce in several cultures in this era.

With this focus on arms and armament, The Art of Weapons presents a less familiar albeit important aspect of the broader field of the classical canon in African art. It moves beyond masks and votive figures, which the viewing public often encounters in museums. In the exhibition’s display, the objects are classified under the rubrics of offensive and defensive weapons. They comprise various types, including axes, swords, spears, knives, throwing clubs, quivers and arrows, and shields. The exhibition explores the narratives possessed by these weapons as extensions of cultural ideas of masculinity, warriorhood, and ideal male beauty in traditional African societies. They transmitted gallantry, vitality, and military conquest, and they embodied a warrior complex in which male members of the community valorized their strength and the beauty of their bodies.

The exhibition also presents an important context within which to consider Western ideas of masculinity and self-presentation as conveyed by the collection of these objects by European military officers, colonial administrators, explorers, Christian missionaries, and big-game hunters in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. Although the various vocations of the different collectors shaped their aesthetic and ethnographic choices, the enlightenment notions of masculine authority, worldliness, imperial ambitions, and triumphalism framed the general interest in African weapons and were critical to the standard collecting practices of the turn of the century, when these objects began to leave Africa in increasing numbers. These notions were apparent in the early ethnographic displays of African weapons as trophies in elite Western homes and museum settings and are revisited in the exhibition.

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