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

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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.
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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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