Book Review | The Artfulness of Death in Africa by John Mack Revelatory exploration of funerary practice in sub-Saharan Africa
(Left to right) Power figure (nkisi), Kongo peoples (Loango, Republic of Congo),19th–20th century, wood with mirror, whose reflective surface suggests the dividing line between the realms of the living and the dead; Large, swathed female figure (niombo), Bwende-Dondo peoples (Republic of Congo, DRC), c1938. An early museum photograph of the object shows it originally had an additional small figure of a baby suckling on the right breast; Ceramic memorial head (nsode), Akan peoples (Ghana), c19th century and Crucifix, Kongo peoples (DRC or Angola), 16th–17th century, brass, its form reflecting a Kongo ideogram
A SPECIALIST in African arts and cultures, John Mack has written many books based on more than two decades of research, field work, exhibitions and publications.
Memory, miniaturisation and maritime culture are just a few of his preoccupations and his latest work looks closely at the relationship between art and death in sub-Saharan Africa.
Drawing on an extensive list of archaeological, historical, anthropological and literary sources, Mack traces the patterns and divergences of sociospiritual life across sub-Saharan communities in seven richly detailed chapters.
It’s a beautifully illustrated and robustly researched survey of sculptures, textiles, masks, installations, storytelling and performances that appear in all aspects of funeral practices across the continent.
From the vast burial mounds of Emi Lulu to Nigerian portrait masks and from Edo installation rites to the fantastical Ga coffins of southern Ghana, the breadth of coverage in what’s a deeply informative and fascinating read is astonishing.
It’s a book which invites us to consider an architecture of death that is cyclical, wherein by way of artistic endeavour the line between the worlds of the living and the dead are indistinct and permeable.
Masks invoke ancestral spirits, carved figurines take the place of a deceased twin and kings are buried with glittering retinues to attend their every need in the afterlife. There is certainly artfulness in the craftsmanship but also, Mack suggests, in the context of the ideas communicated in the disruption of social order, the nature of ritual and the “anti-structure” of transformation.
Art is both the expression of chaos and its solution.
The final chapters move from the world of metaphysical speculation to a sobering examination of the economics of death. The increasing lavishness of modern funerals bankrupts families and leaves entire communities impoverished, with the pressure on the living to keep up with the extravagances of the dead forcing many countries to call for reform to curb skyrocketing burial bills.
The importance of proper burial has never been more potent in Africa than during the 2014 outbreak of Ebola, contracted by direct contact with the body of a sufferer, alive or dead and the final page of Mack’s brilliant book posits some difficult questions about a continent’s changing relationship with death in an era of epidemics, overpopulation and ever-increasing wealth disparity.
A work of clarity and rigour, The Artfulness of Death in Africa is essential reading for anyone interested in the arts of the continent.
Published by Reaktion Books, £35.