Visions make Beauty: the permanence

Translated by Ilaria Pol Bodetto. Revised and edited by Deborah Dainese

In this fourth and final chapter of Visions, my gaze turns towards one of the peculiar characteristics that connote the autonomous statute of the iconic tribal act. (

I have already identified in the image/event (  and in the vitality ( ) two fundamental – in my opinion – aspects of such statute.

The permanence is the third characteristics that connotes this process.

Beware, the aspects that we could hypothetically investigate are, in truth, countless; however I believe that the event , the vitality and the permanence summarize the iconic tribal statute – in other words, they “let the image jump, through a visual or tactile fruition, from a state of latency to the exterior efficiency in the sphere of the perception, of the thought, and of the behaviour”, to quote H. Bredekamp.

The permanence – that is to say, an object’s ability of crossing space and time while keeping its original characteristics untouched – is not a tribal prerogative.


The peculiar aspect of the so-called “ primitive ” culture, and, more specifically, of its images, is the absolute and incorruptible adherence to the model originally conceived among every specific ethnic group, and then passed on through the realization of compositive manners and canons, immediately distinguishable from one another, despite the inevitable cultural contaminations between neighbouring populations.

If we look at the images of the artistic production of the Dogon (Mali), the Baoulé (Ivory Coast) or the Luba (Congo) people, just to mention three widely known cultures, it is impossible for us to make any possible attributive mistake: the permanence of their peculiar characteristics is absolute in every artifact, no matter if we are in front of a sculpture, or a mask, or a powerful tool, or something which was intended to be used daily.

We might therefore state that this is the result of insular and impenetrable cultures, cultures that refer only to themselves… but even this speculation won’t explain the force of such expressive permanence that, in my opinion, shouldn’t be researched in any material or geographical cause.

Although located in specific territories, these cultures weren’t isolated – at all.

We know, for instance, about a series of cases where blacksmiths of different ethnic groups made objects of devotion for other people, and we should also remember that trades were common and ordinary;  however nothing has even scraped the permanence of the ancient primeval model – although, and it is obvious, the evolution of such model has always been incessant, thanks to the virtuosity of artists who are, sadly, still unknow.

This situation lasted until the encounter with the Western culture and its predatory, manipulative and impositive burden.

But while these culture still lived freely, what was the immaterial factor that should be pinpointed as the origin of such stubborn and embedded permanence?

What force determined such a powerful outcome, to the point of crossing centuries, in a space as wide as entire continents?



In other words, going back to our topic, to what energy could possibly be subject a phenomenon so radical that can imprint on the images’ vision that iconic power that firstly perturb us and then makes us curious, that attracts us and then scaries us, that tightens its grip before making us understand itself?

Surely that energy is not the vacuous and defenceless aura of exotism, nor are the antiquated narrations of voyages in mysterious and far-away lands!

The force that jumps forward from the images is the same primeval force that permeates those people, the subterranean force that passes through their gestures, their rites and the objects they use while performing such rites.

We could recall, for instance, the ritology of the Fang people (Culti So, Bokung- Elong, Ngi, etc), or the Gaza rites of the Nbaka people of Congo, or even the Hamba cult of the Chokwe people or the Bitwi one of the Loumbo culture, just to mention a couple of them among the hundreds of possible ones (


Culte bwiti, Photo Michel Huet 1951ca. (2)

Loumbo girl

And the force of this permanence is enclosed in a proper tribal mystic that, as a river does, crosses the whole culture of different peoples and populations, giving them identity and meaning, symbols and rites.

The power of such tribal mystic does not lay in a vacuous and shallow sacredness, does not express itself through the bored dances performed for the tourists, and neither through those pseudo-artistic objects that crowd into the art market; its essence saturates the deeper contents of anthropological cultures, somehow still mysterious and – for us – unknowable; in constitutes the authentic root and the the original meaning of the permanence of such cultures across the space and the time.

I guess I have probably disconcerted someone since I talked about “tribal mystic”, but if the most genuine meaning of the word mystic – term which comes from the Christian world and, even before that, from the classical Greece, where the word was born – is the interior experience, the one that involves the Man as a whole, par excellence  (Marco Vannini, 2013), I believe that only few would object the fact that the whole sub-Saharian African continent has been crossed by cults and rituals that were destined to involve not only a single individual, but the whole community he belonged to.

The fact that the names of the theologians and mystics of the tribal cults are still unknown, (in contrast to what happened to Western figures such as Ildegard from Bingen and Ernst Troeltsch, Meister Eckhart and Michel de Certeau … it doesn’t mean, at all, that a specific tribal mystic shouldn’t be present; a mystic, in this case, aimed towards the deepest experience of communication with the invisible forces that discipline the whole universe.


1907 les bakubas Harroy Fd

And it is this tribal mystic , in my opinion, the immaterial factor that has determined, on one side, the permanence of an aesthetic/expressive system that still gives us the possibility to recognize the peculiarity of each culture in relation to its own creations and the creations of other people and, on the other side, the expressive force of the tribal image, with its charge of symbolism and and the perturbing disquiet it raises in the Western viewer.

Event, vitality and permanence, as I tried to illustrate them, are therefore the three pillars of the autonomous statute of the iconic tribal act , pillars that make that statute a specific field of research and in-depth analysis.

I do not know if, with the four chapters of Visions , I managed to accomplish to this purpose  but I hope and I believe I have outlined an innovative and fruitful modality of vision of the tribal image.

Elio Revera



My Africa!



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