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Hervé Youmbi’s cycle of “Totem” works unsettle Western stereotypes about Africa and African art in different ways. Several undermine the West’s “one-tribe-one-style” view of African art by showing that existing African art traditions are remarkably open to outside influences, and readily adopt outside styles—even foreign to Africa. The combination of various diverse styles in Totem 01-01-18 relates to this point, yet simultaneously it presents a view of the cycle of life that is applicable to much of Africa, and quite distinct from Western outlooks. In many African belief systems, the cycle of life terminates with the ancestral realm, while conception and birth are also overseen by the ancestors, so the ancestors stand at the beginning of life, too. While life is a terminal condition, the ancestors are eternal. This implies a fundamentally different relationship to the dead, who are continually recalled during masked ceremonies to spiritually enter the masks and participate in rituals with their living relatives. Unlike the dead in the West, often left under gray tombstones in somber graveyards in Western culture, African ancestors often are invited to inhabit brightly colored masks, danced in crowded ceremonies. The masks are carved from wood, regarded in most African cultures as possessing life-force or spirit, like humans, to be spiritual vehicles. In several African cultures, beads also have spiritual implications, representing a magical transformation of one state to another (sand to glass, solid as liquid), as well as carrying color symbolism. Along with other materials with “shine”—such as brass—they have apotropaic power, attracting good and repelling evil.
Totem 01-01-18 presents an initial image of “Africa” and “African art” that fragments upon closer inspection, spanning many diverse cultures, and pointing to various functions of different masks. The meanings of the four different masks then coalesce into a message about the human cycle of life that can validly be applied to many African traditional religious systems, one where our ancestors are eternally present and frequently invited, via art objects and sacred art materials, to re-enter the human realm and commune with us.