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.

Herbert Ward, The Fire Maker, 1911. Bronze, approximately life-size. National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

In an article ironically titled “The Real African,“ published in 1910 in the popular magazine Scribner’s, Ward succinctly stated his views on the place of the indigenous peoples of Africa within the family of man. In a spirit of optimism, he was firmly convinced of the essential humanity of the Congolese natives and held that “bonds of sympathy and conciliation” united all people.

The pendulum of Ward’s analysis of native African culture could and did swing decisively back in the opposite direction. Far from the Eden-like world of the noble savage imagined by European intellectuals of the previous century, he saw the people of the Congo living in a harsh state of existence conditioned by the implacable stress of their natural environment. According to this superficial logic, such an endemic and stultifying state of existence engendered an inevitable process of arrested intellectual development.

For Ward and many professional students of race at the time, although black African children were born “exceedingly intelligent and quick-witted,” their mental acuity was irrevocably halted by the prompt early closure of the sutures of the skull. With the expansion of the brain thus restricted, the higher functions of reason and morality could not be engaged in the pursuit of progress toward a higher state of consciousness and, thus, a more civilized existence. Thus, the native people were predestined, in Ward’s view, to live their lives in a pure, unspoiled unity with nature.

In similar fashion, the former U.S. president and African big game hunter Theodore Roosevelt, who visited the artist’s studio in Paris, noted that the “negro of the Congo” resembled the white European of 100,000 years before. Such a patronizing grasp of human culture, ground in racist assumptions, could only impede the progress of the Diasporic people of Africa, whose cause was at that very moment being championed so fervently by W.E.B. Du Bois.

For half a century The Fire Maker occupied a prominent place at the National Museum of Natural History. Its remarkable itinerary from the mind of the artist in remote Central Africa to its creation and display in his Paris studio, and finally its placement in a major public venue in America, aptly charts the dissemination of the idealized image of the savage state of man throughout the industrialized world.

Today the work has been consigned to storage within the cavernous deposits of the Smithsonian, a victim, some would say, of political correctness. Nevertheless, it remains relevant to the ongoing discourse on the colonial exploitation of native people.

On the other side of the Atlantic, much the same thing has happened with the four plaster versions of Ward’s figures acquired by the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. Founded in 1904 as a kind of grandiose justification for the occupation of the Congo, the institution is now undergoing a thorough renovation of both structure and content. It is scheduled to reopen in 2017, with no word as to whether or not the four figures will reappear and, if so, in what context.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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