Sculpture of an African Fire-Maker Isn’t as ‘Real’ as You Might Think

Image of the Week: Presented as an authentic view of a primitive man from the Congo, a bronze statue actually represents Europeans’ primitive view of Africans.

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Herbert Ward, The Fire Maker, 1911. Bronze, approximately life-size.

National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

A native of the African Congo squats before a log, his right foot holding it firmly in place. Several inches farther along its length, he twirls a slender stick within a hole made in the log’s upper surface. His gaze is directed intently downward as he concentrates on making fire, an elemental technology little changed for hundreds of thousands of years. Dressed only in a loincloth, his idealized muscular figure appears frozen in time as the very embodiment of a “primitive” man living in harmony with his natural environment. 

This work was created by Herbert Ward, an English traveler and adventurer-turned-artist. Two decades earlier, he had spent several years in Central Africa in the service of the Belgian colonizers of the Congo. This vast territory had just been claimed by King Leopold II as his personal domain. Attracted by the opening of this land of great natural wealth and beauty to Europeans, Ward lived among the native people, observing with great interest and sympathy their material culture and mode of life.

In 1889 Ward returned to his native England to pursue a career as an artist. He left the Congo on the eve of the worst atrocities committed as a result of the Belgian exploitation of the territory and later became a staunch advocate for reform.

With his move to Paris in 1900, Ward began a long series of sculptural representations of Congo natives. Between 1906 and 1911 he produced nine life-size individual figures as well as many small-scale sculptures over a longer period.

In 1921, just two years after Ward’s death, these works, along with Ward’s vast collection of native artifacts, were donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. There they were presented as an ensemble in the National Museum of Natural History. Cast in the durable “high culture” medium of bronze, and perched atop an artificially roughened wooden base with a brass informational plaque, The Fire Maker was displayed as a typical representative of indigenous life in the heart of the African continent.

Both in form and theme, the artist’s approach to his subject may appear straightforward, presenting an impression of veracity consistent with the didactic mission of the ethnographic museum. In extensive publications about his African travels, Ward expressed the need for a broad effect of naturalism in order to capture the essence of native life in the Congo. Of greatest concern for him was the presentation of primitive culture through the typical actions of its living exemplars, such as a seated chief in full regalia, a carver of wooden fetishes and, as seen here, the conjurer of fire.

The elevated position of The Fire Maker effects an abrupt transfer from his notional forest home to the studied artificiality of the museum exhibition hall. It is quite revealing, therefore, to examine just what Ward’s intentions were in undertaking this substantial, self-imposed project.

First of all, one is struck by the retrospective nature of the enterprise, begun more than a decade after his departure from the Congo. Some of the heads of his sculptures may have been derived from drawings and photographs made while he was still there, but the bodies are generalized, with no regard for the particular ethnicity of the subject.

This observation in itself should urge caution regarding any real degree of ethnographic authenticity in the conception of these figures. From the seclusion of his studio, Ward could distill and refine his own highly personal impressions of native African life as he also absorbed much of the contemporary, pseudoscientific scholarly discourse on race and culture. These two quite different approaches produced an idiosyncratic, strangely fascinating aesthetic paean to the primitive man.