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!


Visions make Beauty: la permanenza


In questo quarto e conclusivo capitolo delle Visions la mia attenzione è rivolta ad una delle caratteristiche peculiari che connotano lo statuto autonomo dell’atto iconico tribale. (

Ho già individuato nell’immagine/evento ( e nella vitalità (, due fondamentali aspetti, a mio parere, di tale statuto.

La permanenza, è la terza caratteristica che connota questo processo.

Sia chiaro, innumerevoli sono gli aspetti che si potrebbero indagare, ma a mio avviso, l’evento, la vitalità e la permanenza  costituiscono i fattori riassuntivi dello statuto iconico tribale, quelli cioè  “che consentono all’immagine di balzare, mediante una fruizione visiva o tattile, da uno stato di latenza all’efficacia esteriore nell’ambito della percezione, del pensiero e del comportamento”, per dirla con H. Bredekamp.





La permanenza, vale a dire la capacità di attraversare tempo e luoghi mantenendo le caratteristiche originarie, non è una prerogativa tribale.

Quel che è peculiare nella cultura “primitiva” e specificatamente nelle immagini ad essa inerenti, è l’assoluta, integra fedeltà al modello originariamente concepito nell’ambito di ogni specifica etnia e tramandato attraverso la realizzazione di stilemi e canoni compositivi immediatamente distinguibili gli uni dagli altri, sia pure in presenza di inevitabili contaminazioni culturali tra popolazioni viciniori.


© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford Akpambe Juju circa 1907

© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford Akpambe Juju, circa 1907


Guardando le immagini  della produzione artistica Dogon (Mali), Baoulé (Costa d’Avorio) o Luba (Congo), per citare tre culture ampiamente conosciute, nessuna possibile confusione attributiva è possibile: la permanenza delle caratteristiche peculiari è totale in ogni manufatto, che si tratti di statue, maschere, oggetti di potere o d’uso quotidiano.

Si potrebbe affermare che ciò è il risultato di culture chiuse, impermeabili ad ogni influenza, culture che si riassumono in sé medesime…ma tutto questo non spiega la forza di tale permanenza espressiva che, a mio parere, non va cercata in fattori materiali o geografici.

Per quanto concentrate in specifici territori, queste culture, però,  non erano affatto “chiuse”!

In taluni casi, erano perfino fabbri di differente etnia, evidentemente più abili, i realizzatori delle opere di culto e di norma  gli scambi commerciali erano diffusi ed ordinari; ma nulla ha scalfito la permanenza dell’antico stilema originario, sebbene, come è ovvio, l’evoluzione all’interno di esso sia stata continua, in virtù della maestria di artisti  ancora purtroppo sconosciuti.


Igala ritual mask 'Egwu Agba.' Taken from the book ARTS DU NIGERIA, Reunion des musée nationaux Paris 1997. Photograph by J.Boston

Tutto questo fino all’incontro con la cultura occidentale ed al suo carico predatorio, manipolativo ed impositivo.

Ma fin quando queste culture han vissuto nell’ambito della propria indipendenza, quale fattore immateriale è all’origine di una permanenza tanto pervicace e radicata? Quale forza ha determinato un esito così potente tale da attraversare un tempo secolare, in uno spazio vasto interi continenti?

In altre parole, ritornando allo specifico del nostro tema, quale energia soggiace ad un fenomeno tanto radicale da imprimere alla visione delle immagini quella potenza iconica che inquieta prima di incuriosire, che attrae prima di spaventare, che attanaglia prima di comprendere?

Non certo l’esotismo vacuo ed inerme  di facciata e tantomeno le narrazioni stantie di viaggi in terre lontane e misteriose!

La forza che balza dalle immagini è la stessa primigenia forza che permea quelle genti, la forza sotterranea che attraversa i loro gesti, i loro riti e gli oggetti ad essi legati.

Basterebbe ricordare la ritologia Fang  (Culti So, Bokung- Elong, Ngi, ecc..), o i riti Gaza degli Nbaka del Congo ovvero il culto Hamba dei Chokwe  o quello Bitwi dei Loubo, soltanto per citarne  alcuni tra le centinaia possibili. (

E la forza di questa permanenza è racchiusa in  una vera e propria mistica tribale che, come un fiume, attraversa l’intera cultura di popoli e genti, dando loro identità e significato, simboli e riti.


Bwami and Kanyamwa

Bwami and Kanyamwa, Lega people, Congo


La potenza di tale mistica tribale non è in una religiosità vacua e di facciata, non si  esprime in quelle annoiate danze per i turisti e nemmeno in quell’oggettistica pseudo-artistica che abbonda sul mercato; la sua essenza impregna i contenuti profondi di culture antropologiche, per certi versi ancora misteriose e per noi inconoscibili, ma che costituisce la radice autentica ed il significato originario della  permanenza di tali culture nel tempo e nello spazio.


Bamana Ritual, Mali, Early 20th Cen, Photographer Unknown.

Bamana Ritual, Mali, Early 20th Cen, Photographer Unknown.


Immagino di sconcertare qualcuno parlando di «mistica tribale»,  ma se il significato più genuino di mistica, termine proprio del mondo cristiano e prima ancora di quello greco classico, dove peraltro la parola è nata, si compendia come l’esperienza interiore che per eccellenza coinvolge tutto l’uomo (Marco Vannini, 2013), credo che pochi abbiano ad eccepire del fatto che l’intero continente africano sub-sahariano è stato attraversato da culti e riti che non soltanto erano destinati a coinvolgere l’individuo, bensì l’intera sua comunità di appartenenza.

Il fatto che non si conoscano i nomi dei teologi e mistici dei culti tribali, a differenza dei nomi di quelli occidentali da Ildegarda di Bingen ad Ernst Troeltsch, da Meister Eckhart a Michel de Certeau… non significa affatto che non sia stata presente e permanente una specifica mistica tribale destinata alla più profonda esperienza di comunicazione con le forze invisibili regolatrici dell’intero universo.

Ed è codesta mistica tribale il fattore immateriale, a mio parere, che ha determinato da un lato,  la permanenza di un sistema estetico/espressivo che ci fa riconoscere la peculiarità di ogni popolo in relazione alle proprie creazioni e dall’altro, la potenza espressiva dell’immagine tribale col suo carico di simbolismo e perturbante inquietudine per l’osservatore occidentale.


1910 Swann, Alfred J. Fighting the Slave Hunters in Central Africa.

1910 Swann, Alfred J. Fighting the Slave Hunters in Central Africa.


Evento, vitalità e permanenza, nelle accezioni che ho provato ad illustrare, sono pertanto i tre pilastri dello statuto autonomo dell’atto iconico tribale e che fanno di esso uno specifico ambito di ricerca e di approfondimento.

Non so se con i quattro lavori delle Visions sia riuscito in questo intento, ma credo e spero  di aver delineato una innovativa e feconda modalità di visione dell’immagine tribale.

Elio Revera


Fang Ritual in Lambarene, Gabon. Jean d'Esme 1931.

Why are they showing their dicks?

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

The unbiased innocence of the gaze of a child in front of some african sculptures floors every certainty, exposes the king’s faux robes and leads me towards some considerations concerning this topic, with no other aim but my independent view on tribal art.

The beautiful classical Greek sculptures of the V century BC, characterized by proportion and harmony, and cradle of all Western artistic culture, had no veils to cover them; the naked body – male and female – was venerated, and not just admired.
For centuries, since the transition from the Latin culture to the Christian one, religions and systems of belief have deeply influenced the representation of naked images – reaching the apex of obscurantism, in my opinion, around the second half of the XVI century, when Daniele da Volterra made the nudes of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement wear breeches.

And it is not only the Counter-Reformed Christian religion that stands out because of its
abnegation; the same Jewish religion (apart from an initial parenthesis) is not better, not to mention the Islamic one, where the human figure (more or less clothed) is banished from every kind of representation.
And it is extremely contemporary, in the end, the scandal which arose from L’origine du monde, the painting of Gustave Courbet , plastic and immediate representation of the vagina of a young woman, probably the model Joanna Hiffernan.



Gustave Courbet “L’origine du monde”, 1866

Prohibition, shame, bashfulness and guilt have always accompanied the artistic nude, and not only in Western culture.
But then why, on the contrary, the tribal art, the African one in particular, hasn’t followed this trail- at least until the meeting with fervent Western devouts?

Could it be that, in that cultures, prohibitions, shame, bashfulness and guilt do not exist? Of course not, the wide range of human behaviours and feelings makes no exceptions – not even for tribal cultures; on the contrary, in some cases what is banned and what is forbidden become way more meaningful – just think about the punishments expected for those who break the rules of the secret societies which hold the fate of the whole community!

I think that the reason why the naked figure can instead be represented in more or less every form of African sculpture (and from the Guinea Gulf to Angola, from the Sudanese cultures to the ones of the forests of Gabon and Congo… cultures which didn’t know about the reciprocal existence, if not, in a couple of rare cases, because of long-lost common origines) needs to be found somewhere else.


Lobi Rasmussen

Lobi (Ivory Coast)


And, in my opinion, and always minding the proper and right differences, one of the reasons that has led Greek and tribal culture to create so many masterpieces where the naked figure stands out is the complete absence of any kind of ideological element connected to the theme of nakedness, and the unconscious force that arises from it.
To be clearer: I am aware of the enormous distance which interocurs between the artistic creations of Praxiteles, Myron or Phidia and the one of some unknown artists from the forest.
And, moreover, I am well aware of the aim of that arts, so different from one another in their purpose, in their consequences and in their outcomes. On the plastic level, however, the representation of the nude is something which is consistent in both of them, and expresses itself with firmness and creativity.


hemba front jpeg

And when I refer to the absence of any ideological convention, I aim to refer to the artist’s possibility of reproducing, on the basis of his own skills and according to the most convenient ritual standards, the human nakedness as a mere factual element of reality. The man, the woman, are made in that way , and there’s nothing that can prevent to represent them ipso facto .
Guilt, shame and prohibition are irrelevant, and they have nothing to do with the nude – rather, maybe in this case we shouldn’t even talk about “the nude”, but, in my opinion, about the image.

Hemba (Congo)


There is no shame simply because shame doesn’t belong to the image; there’s no prohibition because the image doesn’t implies prohibitions.
And we shouldn’t talk about freedom of representation either, because there is no freedom in representing reality as it is seen, perceived or interpreted.
Stripped bare of every kind of ideological value, no matter if secular or religious, the image becomes origin and destination of its own self, conceived either for a public agorà or collocated on the family altar of an isolated African village.



Fon (Togo)


The specificity of the representation of naked figures, both male and female, in African tribal plastic, has, however, an origin and a history which are different from those concerning Greek art, where the representation of the nude was eminently an aesthetic choice, connected to Policletu’s Canon , according to which harmony and proportions were the fundamental precepts that needed to be respected.
Nothing of the above, naturally, can be referred to a tribal culture – where statues and masks were intended for a well known ritualistic practice, and carved on the basis of a precise (and socially accepted) canon.

Primitive tribal art, in fact, since it doesn’t have an aesthetic purpose, finds its deeper meaning the moment it satisfies a precise symbolic or practical function, and serves the single individual, the family clan and the social group it belongs to.

This is not the place for an in-depth analysis of the hermeneutic of the image in tribal art, but certainly there’s no doubt that the representations of naked figures occupy an important place, and that they are charged with solid iconographies and fascinating allegorical narrations.


baoulé blolo bian jpeg

Baoulé, (Ivory Coast)


And, in my opinion, the archetypical element that characterizes the symbolic imaginary of tribal art is not of secondary importance – at all: the representation of the naked image as close to that primeval element which is the body, sic et simpliciter .
From this issue, then, as we have said before, other symbolic values arise, first of all the ones connected to power, to the perpetration of the clan and to the will of domination.
In the meantime nothing forbids us, common Western mortal men of the XXI century as we are, to admire the beauty and the seducing mystery of such figures, so distant from our sensibility, but at the same time so close to our deeper lust for knowledge.

Elio Revera


Bena Luluwa and Bembe (Congo)

Bena Luluwa and Bembe (Congo)

Good History and bad history

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

In the present work I recall some themes I have already investigated, concerning the evaluation of the quality and the symbolic hermeneutics of the tribal artworks.
( e ).
I will try to give an answer to this question: how should we look at a tribal object?
The distance – temporary, geographical, and, especially, anthropological and cultural – of such objects triggers a series of questions that need to find an answer, if we do not want to make the mistake of adopting a eurocentric point of view or, better, a post-colonialist aesthetic perspective.



Dan ritual Ivory-Coast 1950s photographer-unknown

Such is the theme that the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 – 2002) put at the centre of his speculation, particularly for what concerns aesthetic.
In Gadamer ’s opinion, the issue of the encounter (or the < <mediation>>) between the originary world of the artwork and the world of the interpreter/consumer is not to be eluded, and, consequently, “ the aesthetic needs to resolve itself into the hermeneutics ”, that is to say, the fruition of the artwork implicates, at a certain point, the more general issue of its interpretation . (Truth and method , 1960)
For Gadamer, the art experience could be considered such only when it is deeply felt and causes a shift in the perspective of those who participate in it, no matter if they are spectators or artists: we are talking about an event, an experience of truth – in the way Hegel conceived it – that modifies the subject.
Briefly, we can easily say that, if the encounter with the artwork can deeply mark the life of someone, for instance renewing the way they see the world and the way they behave, we shouldn’t nevertheless dismiss the artwork’s importance through the concept of enchantment, dream, appearance.
The encounter with the artwork means way more than just wandering estatically in a dream-like world; it is rather the effective resettlement of our existence: “ the aesthetic experience is a means of self-understanding ”, a form of experience, of knowledge.
For Gadamer, and here the philosopher quotes Hegel, Art is therefore an experience of truth, and the relationship with the past shouldn’t be merely focused on a reconstructive process, but on an integrative one, that is to say necessarily mediated by History.



Bobo masquerader, Burkina-Faso ca.1911


The artistic fruition becomes then an issue concerning the mediation between these two worlds, the world of the artwork and the world of the reader, and therefore a hermeneutic problem concerning the integration between these two worlds.
The interpretative process becomes, therefore, essential.
Going back to our initial question, consequently, the tribal art needs to be essentially
interpreted , and not only looked at.
This is how I interpret Gadamer’s exhortation towards the necessity of integrating the world of the artwork with the world of the reader, the artifact and the observer, the tribal gaze and the Western one, without prejudices, nor mental uncertainty whatsoever.
This doesn’t lessen at all the aesthetic evaluation, typical of the Western critical approach: it is actually from the encounter of these two worlds, interpretative and evaluative, that gushes, in my opinion, the right approach towards the artistic tribal world.
And when the interpretation becomes difficult and debatable because of the absence of that knowledge which is impossible to trace out, because of the absence of sources and original researches?
It is known that the entire culture of the so-called “Black Africa” has been developed without the writing of the natives, and that the informations in our possess are the result of the researches of historians, anthropologists, museum curators… alongside, of course, the diaries and the writings of ancient travellers, colonists and missionaries.
In my opinion, it will be difficult for us – despite the good intentions and the will of many able scholars – to overcome this obstacle.




Bamum dancers of the royal court. Foumban, Cameroon Circa 1930.


The deeper meaning of some rites and of the religious tools used to perform them, because of the absence of reliable proofs, will never be unveiled.
So what? It is certainly not by using that “ magical conscience ”, rightfully stigmatized by Haim Baharier , that the issue will be resolved! That is to say through the use of that apparently critical spirit that doesn’t know doubts and that, all in all, refuses any kind of interpretation.
Everyone remembers Marcel Griaule’s stupefying and fascinating reconstruction of the culture of the Dogon people through the revelations of the old hunter Ogotemmeli , a sort of Homer of the desert, recounting ego of the myths and the legends of his people.
We all appreciate the prose and the writing of the great French explorer/ethnologist. But how many of us would willingly call such narrations completely realistic and truthful?
Not many, I believe, even if this doesn’t diminish the fascination and the pleasure of reading about the Dieu d’eau that I discovered years ago, thanks to the magnificent translation of one of the great contemporary philosophers, Giorgio Agamben, Dio d’acqua, 1972.
( )



Dogon ritual,  ca. 1950


This is why, in my opinion, stopping on the doorstep of the unknowable doesn’t mean at all not appreciating the beauty of a distant artwork; stopping on that doorstep, on the contrary, constitutes the greatest form of respect towards those who created it and consecrated during their original rites.
But this also means keeping on delving into the research, the history of that object, with a free and passionate spirit, avoiding that bizarre reconstructions, that attempts of faux and laughable parody, which often happens – alas! – because of pseudo-cultural interests strictly connected with a degrading commercial underworld.
There are many ways through which a tribal art object could be counterfeit, not last by changing its meaning to achieve stupefying – and incongruous – outcomes.
All of this, in fact, is far from the reconstruction of his good history and close to the possible creation of a bad history.


Elio Revera



Bakuba masqueraders Belgian-Congo, ca. 1930

Visions make Beauty: the vitality

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


Vitality. A step back, before moving forward.
As I have already illustrated before, this analysis aims to profile the autonomous statute of the iconic tribal act.

The three traits that, in my opinion, characterize such process (that is to say: the event, already object of a detailed study, the vitality and the permanence of the images in the tribal tradition) emerged in the course of that presentation.

Now, before we can finally go back to our incipit , I would like to suggest the patient reader to delve into the two previous works I just mentioned.
What do I mean by the expression “vitality of the images of the tribal tradition”?




In one of the most renowned Italian language dictionaries, the Treccani, by vitality s. f. [dal lat. vitalĭtas -atis], si intende – 1. a. La condizione, la caratteristica di essere vitale, capace cioè di vivere e sopravvivere b. Forza vitale, dinamicità, elevata efficienza e operosità c. fig. La capacità, la caratteristica di mantenersi efficiente e operante: la v. di una istituzione , di un sodalizio , di un’idea. 2. Nell’ultima fase della speculazione filosofica di B. Croce, il termine è usato come sinonimo di vita o corporeità, nella sua dinamica di piacere e dolore, radice e materia della dialettica spirituale.
(Transl: [from the latin vitalitas -atis], we mean – 1. a. The condition, the characteristic of being vital, that is to say able of living and surviving b. Vital force, dynamism, high efficiency and industriousness. c. fig. The ability, the characteristics of staying efficient and operative: the v. of an institution, of a partnership, of an idea. 2. In the last phase of the philosophical speculation of B. Croce, the word was used as a synonym of life or substance, in its dynamic of pleasure and pain, root and matter of the spiritual dialectic.





And, in fact, the energy which comes from the tribal images, an expressive energy connected to their formal aspects, a dynamic energy connected to the motion, a meta-energy proper of the innovation of the representations, so powerful that they could transform the perception of the Western art once they had met, all these energies constitute one of the most peculiar traits of the tribal world.

It would be enough for us to think about the influence that the tribal images had over the most sensitive minds of the Western culture for recognizing their vitality and, consequently, its fundamental importance in the definition of their autonomous iconic statute.

But this is history, however still someone struggles to give that art the credit it deserves, labelling it as “primitive” instead of “primeval”, as it should be called instead.

The said, others are the traits that define the theme of the vitality of the image.

From the way I see it, the vitality of the image configures itself in the gap between representation and symbolization: that is to say, the image we see is never what it describes but what it recalls to on the symbolic level.

The image of the mask which dances, in fact, doesn’t represent itself but the mystery in which it is submerged, inside the never ending dialogue with the forces of the invisible.

In this spatial-temporal hiatus I grasp that element of transcendent vitality that, however far from Benedetto Croce’s lesson, constitutes nevertheless the root and the matter of the spiritual dialectic, as the philosopher defines It.




Another element of vital immanence is the ability of asking us questions, of interrogating us, of making us unquiet and doubtful.

The suspension of certainty is not, in my opinion, only a perturbing factor: nevertheless it is also this, especially for those who are satisfied with a quiet cultural reassurance.

Way more powerful and creative is the force that surrounds us and asks us fundamental questions about the aims and the meanings of what we can see through the images: mere representations of folkloristic or exotic events, or proof of a ieratic, symbolic and creative event?

This power of involving the viewer is the fundament of that psychic, perceptive and cultural change that Horst Brederkamp referred to when delineating the elements that gave the image the possibility to jump from a situation of passive inactivity to a situation of potential transformation of the thought.

And this is in fact what happened in the history of the studies of primitive cultures if, from elements of marginal insignificance, they slowly became matter of critical analysis, and catalysts of new meanings and approaches.

Isn’t it also thanks to the definition of an autonomous statute of the tribal images that modern Anthropology (the one of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, of Clifford, of Geertz, of Augé and many others) tries to elaborate and resolve the conceptual debt it feels towards the same people who used to be the object of its study, to create an actual “decolonization” of the thought?


A Kikuyu Sangoma (medicine man) British East Africa, circa 1910.
I do think so, and I am aware that an approach oriented towards the definition of an autonomous iconic statute would make a useful tool in this path that inevitably needs to leave the classical structural anthropology behind, especially after Deleuze’s lesson, to give the “primitive” knowledge the credit it deserves.
Another peculiar trait of the vitalistic character of the tribal image might seem, at first, forced or uncanny, but in truth it is not. At all.
I am talking about the power of the images, and about their possibility of replacing writing.
In effect, images are and represent, if not a written language, an iconic language way more powerful and meaningful than the alphabet.
As we are going to see in the following work dedicated to the Permanence, each ethnic group has autonomously developed a series of morphologic and aesthetic characteristics that visually connote that specific group.
The tribal images of the masks, of the fetishes, of the ritual objects and of those which are intended for a domestic use, recall an imaginary symbolic alphabet, proper of a specific people, and suggest a presence in time and space.


West African Shaman c. 1904, photo by Robert Hamill Nassau

West African Shaman c. 1904, photo by Robert Hamill Nassau



They are strong per-se, and I am not talking about some kind of aesthetic beauty I’ve never mentioned before: their power lays in the ability of giving back life to a primeval world in which every single moment of everyday life was connoted by the importance of socially belonging to the village of the ancestors, of its development, its wealth, and, at the same time, by the immanent certainty of depending on the forces of the invisible.
From the necessity of a prolific relationship with the world of the invisible, on which individual and social survival relied, have arisen that energies that, in my opinion, have filled the primitive imaginary with a rare and vivid expressive power.


Elio Revera





Visions make Beauty: la vitalità

La vitalità. Un passo indietro, prima di continuare.

Pende Fotografía de Eliot Elisofon (1)

Pende people. Fotografía de Eliot Elisofon


Questa indagine muove dall’intenzione di delineare lo statuto autonomo dell’atto iconico tribale così  come ho già avuto modo di illustrare. (

Nel corso di quella presentazione sono emerse le tre caratteristiche, a mio avviso, che connotano tale processo e cioè l’evento, già oggetto di approfondimento, la vitalità e la permanenza delle immagini della tradizione tribale. (

Ora è possibile ritornare al nostro incipit, suggerendo al paziente lettore di approfondire prima i due precedenti lavori che ho citato.



Dogon people

Cosa intendo per vitalità delle immagini della tradizione tribale?

In uno dei  più riconosciuti dizionari della lingua italiana, il Treccani, per  vitalità s. f. [dal lat. vitalĭtas -atis], si intende – 1. a. La condizione, la caratteristica di essere vitale, capace cioè di vivere e sopravvivere b. Forza vitale, dinamicità, elevata efficienza e operosità c. fig. La capacità, la caratteristica di mantenersi efficiente e operante: la v. di una istituzione, di un sodalizio, di un’idea. 2. Nell’ultima fase della speculazione filosofica di B. Croce, il termine è usato come sinonimo di vita o corporeità, nella sua dinamica di piacere e dolore, radice e materia della dialettica spirituale.

Ed infatti, l’energia che promana dalle immagini tribali, un’energia espressiva legata alle forme, un’energia dinamica legata al movimento, una meta-energia  insita nella novità delle rappresentazioni, talmente potenti al punto di trasformare la percezione dell’arte occidentale, quando questa ebbe ad incontrarla, costituiscono il tratto tra i più peculiari del mondo tribale.

Basterebbe riflettere sull’influenza che le immagini tribali hanno esercitato sulle menti più sensibili della cultura occidentale per decretarne la vitalità e di conseguenza, la sua fondamentale importanza nella definizione dello  statuto iconico autonomo.

Ma questa è storia, sebbene ancora qualcuno stenti a riconoscere i meriti di quell’arte a torto definita “primitiva”, invece di “primigenia” come forse si dovrebbe.

1904. Musée du Congo.Il Fetisher, il Ganga o Moganga

Detto questo, altre sono però  le caratteristiche che definiscono il tema della vitalità dell’immagine.

A mio modo di vedere, la vitalità dell’immagine primitiva si configura nello scarto tra rappresentazione e simbolizzazione, vale a dire, l’immagine che vediamo non è mai ciò che descrive, bensì quello a cui rimanda sul piano simbolico.

L’immagine della maschera che danza, infatti,  non è la rappresentazione di sé stessa, bensì del mistero in cui è immersa, nell’imperituro dialogo con le forze dell’invisibile.

1904. Musée du Congo. Il Fetisher, il Ganga o Moganga


In questo iato spazio/ temporale colgo quell’elemento di vitalità trascendente che, pur lontano dalla lezione di Benedetto Croce, costituisce pur sempre la radice e la materia  della dialettica spirituale, come la definisce il filosofo.

Un altro elemento di immanenza vitale è la capacità delle immagini tribali di porci continuamente delle domande, di interrogarci, di lasciarci inquieti e dubbiosi.

La sospensione della certezza, non è, a mio parere, soltanto un fattore perturbante; indubbiamente è anche questo, soprattutto per quanti si accontentano   della quieta rassicurazione culturale.

Ben più potente e creativa, è però la forza che ci interroga e ci pone fondamentali quesiti circa le motivazioni ed il significato di quel che ci è dato vedere attraverso le immagini; mera rappresentazione di un accadimento folkloristico, esotico,  ovvero testimonianza di un evento ieratico, simbolico e creativo?

Questa capacità di coinvolgerci è la radice di quel mutamento psichico, percettivo e culturale a cui si riferiva Horst Bredekamp quando delineava gli elementi che consentono all’immagine di balzare, da uno situazione di passiva inerzia ad una di potenziale trasformazione del pensiero.

Ed infatti questo è accaduto nella storia dello studio delle culture primitive se da elemento di marginale insignificanza sono divenute ambito di approfondimento critico e catalizzatrici di nuovi approcci e significati.


Igbo Masquerade, Nigeria

Igbo Masquerade, Nigeria

Non è forse anche in virtù della  definizione di uno statuto autonomo delle immagini tribali che la moderna Antropologia, quella di Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, di Clifford, di Geertz, di Augé e di altri, tenta di affrontare e risolvere il debito concettuale nei confronti dei popoli che sono stati oggetto del suo interesse di studio, per realizzare una vera e propria “decolonizzazione” permanente del pensiero?

Io credo proprio di sì e sono consapevole che un approccio orientato alla definizione di un autonomo statuto iconico tribale sia un valido strumento in questo percorso che inevitabilmente necessita di lasciarsi alle spalle l’antropologia strutturale classica, specie dopo la lezione di Deleuze, per restituire al sapere “primitivo” il posto a lungo negatogli nell’orizzonte della conoscenza.


Bakuba Dancer. Belgian Congo. ca. 1959. Photograph by H Philips

Bakuba Dancer. Belgian Congo. ca. 1959. Photograph by H. Philips

Un’altra caratteristica peculiare del carattere vitalistico dell’immagine tribale, a prima vista può apparire forzata o bizzarra, ma non non lo è affatto.

Mi riferisco alla forza in sè delle immagini ed alla loro possibilità di sostituzione della scrittura.

In effetti, le immagini sono e rappresentano se non una lingua scritta, un linguaggio iconico di gran lunga più potente e connotativo dell’alfabeto.

Come si vedrà nel prossimo lavoro dedicato alla Permanenza , ogni etnia ha sviluppato autonomamente alcune caratteristiche morfologiche ed estetiche che connotano in modo riconoscibile quel popolo.

Le immagini tribali delle maschere, dei feticci, degli oggetti rituali ed anche di quelli d’uso, rimandano pertanto ad un immaginario alfabeto simbolico, proprio di un determinato popolo e restituiscono la suggestione di una presenza nel tempo e nello spazio.

Sono forti in sè e non mi riferisco alla bellezza estetica a cui non ho mai fatto  riferimento: la loro forza consiste nella capacità di restituzione di un mondo primigenio nel quale ogni momento della vita quotidiana era scandito dalla consapevolezza dell’importanza di un’appartenenza sociale al villaggio d’origine, al suo sviluppo, al suo benessere e, nello stesso tempo, dalla immanente certezza della dipendenza dalle forze del mondo invisibile.

Proprio dalla necessità di un fecondo rapporto col mondo invisibile, dal quale dipendeva in grande misura la sopravvivenza individuale e sociale, sono scaturite, a mio avviso, quelle energie creative che hanno forgiato l’immaginario primitivo di una rara e vivida potenza espressiva.

Elio Revera


Maîtres Danseurs Batshioko, durant les cérémonies d'initiation. Territoire de Sandao, Province Du Katanga, Congo . ca 1931 Vintage press photo by E. Steppé

  Maîtres Danseurs Batshioko, durant les cérémonies d’initiation. Territoire de Sandao, Province Du Katanga, Congo . ca 1931. Vintage press photo by E. Steppé

Visions make Beauty: the image/event

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


I have already drawn the limits and the aims of my research: enlightening the qualities of the autonomous statute of the iconic tribal act .

What are, then, the typical elements of that act of jumping, 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 the behaviour ? (H. Bredekamp)
Or, in other words, what are the essential and fundamental properties – if they do even exist! – that signifies the autonomous statute of the iconic tribal act?
In my thoughts, the pillars of this act are essentially three: the event, the vitality and the
permanence .
This work is dedicated to the the first of them, that is to say the event.




Western art iconography – which has anticipated for centuries the critical verbal analysis – dates back to two million years ago, when the first humanoid representations of graphical and plastic images appeared.
Western art, over the centuries, has never abandoned the fundamental criterion through which images are still represented, that is the criterion of description and representation.
Both religious and secular art, in fact (and apart for a few sporadic exceptions – I am thinking about Hieronymus Bosch ) have respected such modality at least until the beginning of the last century when the image changed itself into an abstract and conceptual aniconic expression.
Therefore the force of the images has always corresponded with the illustration of the sacred and the secular, were the image was either cruelly realistic or arisen from the visionary imagination of the artist.
Who doesn’t remember the sacre rappresentazioni connected to the Passion of Crist, epic reenactments of battles, landscapes, earthly events, domesticity, portraits of prelates, nobles and bourgeoises – and situations of delight, of work, of tenderness, but also of fear and dread.
The history of Western iconography is full of paintings, sculptures, medals, engravings and artifacts which have a lot to say on this matter.
The image which has accompanied the iconic act of Western art is, essentially, a representative act through which the artist described or transfigured what he knew.
This is not the case of the iconic tribal act.


Fang Ritual in Lambarene, Gabon. Jean d'Esme 1931.


In the context of the tribal art the image, represented essentially by plastic artefacts, is an event; therefore its purpose is not a merely descriptive one, but it corresponds to the event, to what is happening, and the whole perspective shifts from diachronic to synchronic.
Not having a descriptive nature, the images rejects the time-space dimension and become an event – immanent to what it describes.
The image and the sacred correspond in the mediation with the forces of the invisible that regulate the events of the world.
The iconic tribal act, therefore, underlines an autonomous statute in the exact moment when it gives up on describing what it cannot be described, and creates images/event essential to connect the world of the visible with the invisible forces of the sacred.
This is one of its fundamental characteristics: the image, either a mask, a statue or another ritual object, is a vehicle/event of the sacred, an invisible and unintelligible force, nevertheless able to powerfully regulate the individual and – especially! – social life of the whole ethnic group it belongs to.
This is why only a few elected people can take care of the images which mediates the sacred, and this is why such images can be contemplated only by the initiates: their force goes beyond every possible repair, and their intrinsic iconic act is a powerful proof of the power of the invisible.



Dogon people, Mali


But if the image corresponds to the event, what are the consequences that this fact implicates in the definition of the autonomous statute of the iconic tribal act?
First of all, the peculiar attribute of atemporality , that is to say, to use a Western classification method, of the hic et nunc .
However, this category of the here and the now needs to be declined into its specificity of meaning.
Atemporality doesn’t mean at all, in this context, stillness, or absence of evolution and
dynamism. Quite the opposite: it is a criteria of immanence and coincidence .
The image/event exists in the context of its manifestation, of its acting, of the way the image itself produces or doesn’t produce the desired effects and affirms itself on a temporal arc which constitutes – now we can say it – the modus operandi of the image/description.
Inescapable in the way they offer themselves to the viewer, the tribal images can, in that moment, play the part they were created for, and they couldn’t care less for anything else, northey would desire to last any longer in time and space.
This is the meaning I have given to the word “atemporality”, and it’s easy to understand how this is going to codify a peculiarity and not, instead, a limit of the tribal images/event.


Dogon The Dance, Art and Ritual of Africa by Michele Huet

Dogon The Dance, “Art and Ritual of Africa” by Michele Huet


In the light of what I have just written, the more or less explicit theories which relegate tribal art – and, consequently, its images – to a destiny of missed evolution, creative immobilism, or, even worse, of reiterate derivative repetition, have no foundation at all.
If the authentic tribal art – and, to be more specific, the African one, is especially anchored to the hic et nunc , it seems clear that its iconographic evolution shouldn’t be interpreted by using a space/time parameter, typical of the characteristic statute of Western art, but rather on the basis of completely different epistemological categories – which are going to be the focus of a following work.


Luba_hairstyle_old_photo-ca 188

Luba people, hairstyle old photo ca. 1885


It is almost unnecessary to emphasize, now that we are approaching the end of these
digressions, that the image/event needs to be identified as something peculiar to its original contest, and the definition of the autonomous statute of the tribal iconic art refers specifically and totally to the artworks created in that contest and with the original tools, the artworks designated for the original ritual.
Three times I have repeated the word “original”, and not by chance: the Western world,
completely isolated from the context in which those artworks were born and of course ignoring their objectives, couldn’t but regard them as simple exotic objects, at first with a mixture of inquisitiveness and disgust, and then with increasing attention and regard, especially on the light of the economic value that certain works have gained on the international market.
By doing so, however, the entire autonomous statute of the artworks has been wretched, and, in other words, more or less deliberately re-absorbed inside the statute of the Western images.
With this work, and with the following ones, I aim to try to give that tribal artworks their autonomous iconic statute back – since their originality, their fascination and their beauty have already been recognized for decades.

Elio Revera


photo A Cottes Musée de l'Homme Paris Fang people

 Fang people, photo A Cottes Musée de l’Homme, Paris