Foreword

Originally Published in 1920

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The new volume opens with an unusual document. Although its author is already known to readers of the JOURNAL, it is especially in connection with his latest contribution that his identity comes prominently into the foreground and connects itself with his work. The correct spelling of his name is Tlothitckh, which is pronounced Shotridge by white people and for their accommodation and to establish his present relationship with civilization our author has adopted this spelling and pronunciation. His right to the name came to him only upon the death of his grandfather, who owned it and from whom it descended to the grandson. In the meantime the present owner of the name was known among his people as Situwuka, the name given to him at his birth. The name of Louis was also bestowed upon him at the same time by a missionary who happened to arrive at his village the day when he was born, the first missionary his people knew. This name also, as can be seen, has served a useful purpose. All of this explains how the author of the story entitled “Ghost of Courageous Adventurer” is known to us as Louis Shotridge. Among his own people, the Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska, his correct style would be as follows: “Tlothitckh of the Kahguan-taun Clan on the Eagle Side.”

Mr. Shotridge has been in the service of the Museum for eight years and during three of these years he resided and worked among his own people, taking notes, recording stories and making collections for the Museum. At this time he obtained many narratives : mythological, legendary and historical, all of which he recorded as he heard them from the lips of the story tellers in his own language. Out of the voluminous literary material thus preserved, he has selected for the present occasion one entitled, “Ghost of Courageous Adventurer,” a story which appears to have crystalized about an ancient sword with emblematic character, the most sacred possession of one of the Tlingit clans. This old war relic is now in the University Museum.

The document is unique in many respects. It is presented to us through the medium of a Tlingit who possesses an entire knowledge of his native language and an ability to use English. It preserves the literary quality and also (as in the transposition of words) something of the grammatical structure of the Tlingit narrative. It appears in a good English dress which does not entirely disguise the spirit of the original. Some loss of force it has undoubtedly suffered, but in this quality it is not lacking.

We have long cherished a belief that a correct interpretation of Indian legend for readers of English could best be made by a native who, though familiar with our habits of thought and forms of expression, still felt stirring within him the passionate appeal of his ancestors. This mental equipment, combined with careful training in scientific methods of observation and record, constitute Mr. Shot-ridge’s chief qualification for introducing us to the unwritten literature of his people.

Listening to an elder tribesman, he recorded this narrative in his native language and afterwards translated it into English, always searching for the forms that convey most faithfully the thought, and reproduce most accurately the style and character of the original idiom. The result is a faithful translation which preserves in some degree the epic character of the Tlingit narrative. Of the literary value of the document there is no need to speak.

At the beginning of 1918 the University Museum installed for a time a special exhibition of the art of the African Negro. Visitors to the Museum then had an opportunity of viewing some very interesting and remarkable examples of sculpture made by tribes occupying the equatorial regions of Africa between the upper reaches of the Congo and Dahomey. A new exhibition is now announced.

From the standpoint of the artist and the student of design as well as for the student of customs, African images present much matter for study, but to make them intelligible they should be examined in connection with the ideas of which they are the expression, and with an understanding of the ends they were made to serve.

These wooden images tell us a good deal about the African Negro and enable us to see what sort of a man he was, this “maker of gods in lands beyond the sea.” They hint strongly what sort of body he had and what sort of mind and they indicate in forcible terms what kind of relationship he had established between himself and the rest of the universe. In making his gods in his own image he followed a common practice of mankind, and he went so far in this direction and applied the rule with so much conviction that he insisted in bringing out in his images the physical traits that are distinctive of his own special type of mankind. He laid stress on those characteristics which we recognize as peculiarly Negro and which he looked upon as essentials of his art, often suppressing the less essential traits of form and feature. In his sculptures he produced types that corresponded to or rather that idealized local types.

In dealing with the human figure he was evidently guided by a rough canon of proportions, which differed, it is true, from the classical and other canons in the history of art, but it differed from the classical canon of proportions exactly as the human type differed. His canon of proportions was not expressed in mathematical terms or based on exact measurements of the relations between different parts of the body, but consciously or otherwise he expressed, in exaggerated terms to be sure, but for that reason with the greater effect, the bodily relations that mark him off as a separate variety of the human species.

The realism of the African artist, when it occurs, is not literal and his naturalism is never extreme. He adapted the living model to his own purposes and used it according to his traditions. He took what he wanted and was not otherwise much concerned with details, and he did not hesitate to suppress what he did not consider essential to his purpose. The whole body of African art is largely selective and symbolic. Its author, whatever his aims, strove not for realism, for he contrived to deliver his message in another way. It is evident that in this purpose he achieved a striking success. His method in part resembles that of the futurist who does not aim at beauty nor yet at truth but at an effect. It is to be noted however that, whereas in the one case the effort is spontaneous and always sincere, in the other it is labored and sometimes insincere.

The method of the Negro sculptor leads strongly in the direction of what we call caricature and the grotesque, but his aim and the way in which his mind reacted to his work are quite different from those which obtain in the case of caricature or in that of grotesque art. His themes and his treatment of them are common to the history of art, but his work is impressed with a strong individuality and with a stamp that marks it as the utterance of a distinctive type of mind.

The functions of his wooden images and their relation to his life are facts not more closely concerned with himself than the quality of his art and the aspect of these images. It is a “national” or racial or tribal art in the most intimate sense, with all the intensity, the conviction and the limitations that these terms imply. To what extent it is conscious of these qualities it would be difficult to decide and it is singular that though the Negro thinks in concrete terms his work conveys the impression of generalized observation and abstract truth within the limits of his bizarre experience.

To most people who visit the Museum these African images are strange and grotesque. They are apt to see in them the crude workmanship and unlovely conceptions of an uncivilized people. In contrast to this attitude, many artists find in them a powerful appeal, from which they derive agreeable sensations and not a little inspiration. They find them admirable. One of the best known and most successful artists in the City, calling attention to one of these images, said with entire sincerity: “That is the kind of thing that I have been trying to do all my life without success.” Other comments couched in less moderate terms were even more prodigal of praise. Such sentiments may seem absurd and disingenuous, but they are neither one nor the other. They represent the spontaneous appreciation of one craftsman for the work of another. Most people who do not doubt the sincerity of such high estimates of African art, will fail to be convinced of their accuracy; yet it is impossible to remain unimpressed by the intelligent enthusiasm of such professions, especially when accompanied by a deliberate effort to create something similar.

We are inclined to think, however, that most of the artists who find inspiration in an African idol, err in attributing the qualities they admire to an elusive technique. It is likely that a better explanation can be found in Mr. Hall’s article, which describes the incentive under which the Negro artist works. It is obvious that his mind is the receptacle of a strong conviction and his images are wrought under the influence of a deep and robust belief. It may seem only a childish conviction and it may be that his only belief is in the power of a fetish. It is nevertheless to him a great conviction and a tremendous belief, for a belief in the power of a fetish must be a great fact in a man’s life. Work done under the influence of such powerful impulses can hardly be without strength and inspiration.

The disability under which artists work today is not a want of technique or failure to master its principles, but the absence of a conviction of any kind among us and the absence from our civilization of anything resembling a belief. With trained eye and sensitive, impressionable mind our modern artist is quick to detect the presence in an African fetish of something which he feels has eluded him in his work; but not knowing the mind of the Negro or the stimulus under which he works, the modern artist fails to appreciate the significance of what he sees.

It requires no special intelligence to recognize in most African carvings of men and animals the uncouth effects of untrained perception, faulty observation and clumsy execution. Few intelligent and sympathetic observers will fail to see in them something more, something that tends to redeem these obvious deficiencies. It is a part of our purpose to try to define the less obvious qualities and help to make the work of the African craftsman intelligible. Our main purpose is simply to exhibit that work as we find it and record what we know of the ideas which it seeks to embody or which we find associated with it.

The Museum does not approve or practice restoration of objects forming its exhibits where damage has been done by time or accident. It is only under exceptional conditions that partial and modified reconstruction is permitted. Such modified reconstruction is applied in certain instances to pottery, as, for example, in the case of Attic vases shown in this JOURNAL. In each of these vases and other similar vases, certain fragmentary parts either contiguous or separate have long been in our possession. The other parts are missing. Using perfect vases in the collection as his models, our skilful artisan is able to build up the entire vase according to type, leaving the surface plain. The parts which, as detached fragments, are difficult to preserve and handle, are thus combined to make them more susceptible of treatment and of much greater service in the exhibits of the Museum. Dr. Luce shows in an article in this JOURNAL how a complete story may be reconstructed from a few fragments of a vase which has been subjected to this treatment.

Dr. Luce compares ancient bronze helmets in the Museum collection with modern helmets and Dr. Farabee, writing of an Indian wampum belt recently acquired by the Museum, shows how the Indians made treaties and how these belts served important functions and preserved traditions besides their use in certain forms as currency.

EDITOR.

Cite This Article

"Foreword." The Museum Journal XI, no. 1 (March, 1920): 5-9. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/757/


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