Book Review : Visions from the forests – the art of Liberia and Sierra Leone

Book Review: Smith on Grootaers and Bortolot, ‘Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone’

Helena Cantone

Visions from the Forest: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone

Smith on Grootaers and Bortolot, ‘Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone’

Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, Alexander Ives Bortolot, eds.
Fred Smith

Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, Alexander Ives Bortolot, eds. Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014. 239 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-9893718-1-0.

Reviewed by Fred Smith (Kent State University)
Published on H-AfrArts (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Jean M. Borgatti

Bill Siegmann Remembered: Scholar, Colleague, Collector

Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone was produced by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to accompany an exhibition that will travel to four American museums. All of the works in the exhibition and illustrated in the catalogue were collected by Bill Siegmann during his many years of research and travel in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Siegmann was director of the Africana Museum at Cuttington University in Liberia, the National Museum of Liberia, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The title of the exhibition was selected because Liberia and Sierra Leone are part of a tropical rainforest that runs along the West African coast from Guinea to Nigeria. In support of this title, the general editors declare, “the forest provides the physical and conceptual terrain where actions and ideas are developed and pursued” (p. 8). Early fifteenth-century contact with Europe, immigration of emancipated slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a more recent history of civil war have also given a particular distinction to the region.

The catalogue is divided into five sections, the three most significant being a remembrance of Bill Siegmann, a collection of essays on the arts of the region, and a catalogue of objects in the exhibition itself. Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, curator of African Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, organized and introduces the section entitled “Remembering Bill Siegmann” (who died in 2011). It consists of statements by Siegmann himself and eight of his colleagues and friends that reveal not only Bill’s achievements and interests but also his personal and professional qualities. His commitment to understanding, preserving, and sharing the material culture of Liberia rather than focus on a particular area or ethnic group is evident in these accounts, as is his sincere interest in people as individuals and his willingness to help both colleagues and Liberians whenever possible. The section also features thirteen informal photographs.

The book’s largest and most informative section, “Visions from the Forests,” consists of seven essays by scholars with distinctive research interests. The first essay, “Forests in the Imagination of the Upper Guinea Coast” by Mariane C. Ferme (anthropologist) and Paul Richards (agriculturist), focuses on the forest itself–its history and impact on the cultures of the area as well as the connection between forest materials and gender. The link between the forest and the male-controlled Poro Society, the historical and social role of hunting, as well as distinctive attitudes about the bush in contrast to farm and village are briefly discussed. Ferme and Richards examine raw materials from the forest in relation to gender roles, especially as they relate to male and female initiation societies, Poro and Sande respectively. The materials that constitute masquerades–especially wood, raffia, cotton cloth, and various trade items–are considered, but their connection to gender is not always clearly presented. This is especially true of the last two paragraphs of the section.

The second essay in this section, “Extending the Stage: Photography and Sande Initiates in the Early Twentieth Century,” by Nanina Guyer (Africanist), is a well-written and fascinating study of photographs of Sande initiates done by early twentieth-century professional photographers. These images were taken within the village but not within the Sande enclosure as that would have been forbidden. Guyer discusses them within the broader tradition of photographic portraiture in Sierra Leone, emphasizing the work of Alphonso Lisk-Carew, a Freetown-born photographer. Information on the context of the photographs is provided by quotes from Thomas Alldridge, a colonial administrator who traveled extensively in Sierra Leone during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Guyer also explores such nonethnographic uses for the photographs as picture postcards from the early twentieth century, with their outrageously out-of-context captions.

The most thought-provoking essay, “By Their Fruits You Will Know Them: Sande Mask Carvers Identified,” is by art historian Frederick Lamp.  His essay begins with basic information on the use, origin, meaning, and general characteristics of the Sande mask. Lamp next states that after forty years of collecting images, he has been able to identify ninety-four workshops or styles for Sande masks. Lamp then connects masks illustrated in the catalogue to eight workshops, examining the masks’ formal characteristics, ethnic origin, and estimated number of known examples. He illustrates his essay with documentary photographs and images of similar works in other collections. He concludes with a consideration of male non-Sande helmet masks based on one particular example in the exhibition (catalogue #21), noting the features that differentiate this particular mask from Sande masks and other types of male helmet masks.

The third essay, “Spirits from the Forest: Dan Masks in Performance and Everyday Life” by Daniel B. Reed (folklorist and ethnomusicoligist), focuses on the formal features and significance of Dan spirit masks (ge/gle). Of particular interest are his research entries from 1997 documenting specific mask appearances. However, Reed’s discussion of particular masks and their specific uses only partially addresses the complexity of the connections between form and function for Dan masking. Nonetheless, the overall social, religious, and performance contexts of Dan masking is well articulated.

“Brass Casting in Liberia,” a short and well-written essay by Barbara Johnson (art historian), surveys a range of brass objects and their production as well as the careers of two brass casters. The penultimate essay by Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, “Ritual Recycling: Modern Uses of Ancient Stone Sculptures in the Upper Guinea Forest Region,” examines the tradition of stone sculpture in the area, especially those in the styles referred to as nomoli and pomdo. Grootaers also discusses related ivory carving and wood sculpture, notably a wooden male figure in the Baltimore Museum of Art dating from 1200 to 1400 CE. He briefly presents the historical context and early accounts of these sculptural traditions prior to discussing in more detail their later re-use or recycling. In addition, the art works are considered within the wider context of stones believed to have supernatural powers.

The final essay in this section, “William Siegmann, Advocate for Connoisseurship” by Christine Mullen Kreamer (art historian), is a remembrance that stresses Siegmann’s love of objects. It is also a defense of connoisseurship, which involves a connection with, and an understanding of, the individual work of art and its quality. Kraemer notes that Roy Sieber of Indiana University taught his students that the object was “the starting and ending point for art-historical enquiry” (p. 122). She stresses that Siegmann was guided by this approach throughout his career.

The actual catalogue of objects is divided into eleven sections, each focusing on a different object type: Sande society masks, Mende female figures, Sande society pendants and necklaces, men’s society masks (Poro and Thoma in particular), masks of the Dan, Mano, Kono, and Bassa peoples, miniature masks, game boards, Liberian brass (with a full page featuring a Grebo or Kru ring with knobs), stone sculpture of the Sapi and Kissi peoples, textiles, and prestige arts of the Mende Vai, Kim, and Teme peoples. Each section has a one-page introduction written by the two general editors, except for “Textiles” and “Brass from Liberia,” which were authored by Natasha Thoreson, a PhD student at the University of Minnesota School of Design. Although a few of the introductions repeat information from the more extensive essays in “Visions From the Forests,” most expand upon the earlier material or interpret it differently. The book concludes with an appendix in which Lamp discusses the term nowo as a name for the Sande mask. The appendix is followed by an extensive bibliography, information about the authors, an index, and finally, credits.

Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone is a well-organized and clearly written publication that succeeds in highlighting the life and work of Bill Siegmann, especially his commitment to the arts and peoples of Liberia and Sierra Leone, and serving as a catalogue for the diverse range of objects collected by Siegmann and shown in the exhibition. My most serious criticism is reserved for the book’s introduction, which is far too short and general given the range and complexity of the art works on exhibit. It consists of generalizations about the forest, a very brief overview of Liberian and Sierra Leonean history, and some references to recent attempts to preserve the history and material culture of the region. There is also what seems to me to be unnecessary repetition between the essays and the introductions to specific objects. I also found the use of tiny, thumbnail-sized photographs in the top margin, when objects were being discussed or mentioned in the essay section, problematic. They are far too small to see any detail and therefore more annoying than helpful.

In general, however, the catalogue is a valuable and useful resource for anyone interested in the visual culture of Liberia and Sierra Leone. The essays cover a variety of topics related to the art and cultures of the region. High-quality photographs, illustrating the exhibited objects, contribute significantly to the book’s visual impact. Documentary images dating from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century add a broader historical dimension. Finally, it highlights the personal and professional contributions of Bill Siegmann to the field of African art, making it a fitting tribute.


Printable Version:

Citation: Fred Smith. Review of Grootaers, Jan-Lodewijk; Bortolot, Alexander Ives, eds., Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone. H-AfrArts, H-Net Reviews. February, 2015.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Categories: AFRICA, BOOKS, CULTURE, Sierra Leone | Tags:

Call for Papers: Postcolonial Pragmatics – Linguistics and Literature

Call for Papers for a volume on Pragmatic Perspectives on Postcolonial Discourse: Linguistics and Literature

edited by Christoph Schubert and Laurenz Volkmann to be published by Cambridge Scholars

Sociolinguistic research on global varieties of English so far has mainly concentrated on the levels of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary. By contrast, little has been published on pragmatic, discursive or intercultural issues of global Englishes. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that scholars such as Anchimbe and Janney (2011) have stressed the necessity to establish the field of “postcolonial pragmatics”. Accordingly, the projected volume intends to further develop this new subdiscipline, which is still in its infancy, and to point out emerging trends as well as new directions in research.

Suggested Book: Postcolonial Imaginations and Moral Representations in African Literature and Culture

The project will carry out an integrative investigation, particularly probing the interstices between linguistic methodologies and literary text analysis. It intends to show in which ways hybrid communicative situations based on ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity result in similarly hybrid communicative and social practices. Along these lines, the volume will deal with the issue of how postcolonial varieties of English around the world (e.g. India, Nigeria, South Africa, Australia, Canada, or the Caribbean) have produced different pragmatic conventions in a complex interplay of culture-specific and global linguistic discourses.

The literary texts under discussion are conceptualized as media both
reflecting and creating reality, so that they provide valuable insights into discourse phenomena that can be analysed by a joint venture of linguistics and literary studies. We invite contributions approaching the topic from both theoretical and empirical perspectives, as exemplified by the following pragmatic paradigms: – communicative conventions concerning politeness, indirectness, humour, conversational maxims or the variational use of speech acts

  • code-switching/code-mixing and strategic language choices
  • construction of identities as well as social/ethnic roles and techniques of “othering” through language
  • interlingual accommodation and interethnic appropriation
  • postcolonial uses of institutionalized discourse markers and conversational routines
  • cross- and intercultural communication regarding the negotiation of common ground and practices of inclusion/exclusion

Please submit an abstract of 300-400 words (excluding references) to the two editors of the volume by March 6, 2015:

The document should contain your name and the title of the article as well as your affiliation. In the abstract, please introduce your research question, give an outline your method and data, provide a summary of the most important findings, and briefly explain in which way your paper matches the objectives of the volume. The length of the finished papers will be about 6,000-8,000 words (excluding references and appendices). The anticipated submission date for the final papers will be September 30, 2015.

Categories: AFRICA, Call for papers, LINGUISTICS | Tags: , ,

UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to review Gabon, Azerbaijan, Ecuador, Tuvalu, Denmark, Kyrgyzstan, Eritrea, Maldives

GENEVA, Switzerland, February 10, 2015/African Press Organization (APO)/ — The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is meeting in Geneva from 16 February to 6 March to review women’s rights in the following countries:

Gabon (17 Feb); Azerbaijan (18 Feb); Ecuador (19 Feb); Tuvalu (20 Feb);

Denmark (24 Feb); Kyrgyzstan (25 Feb); Eritrea (26 Feb); Maldives (27 Feb)

The above are among the 188 States Parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and so are required to submit regular reports to the Committee of 23 international independent experts that monitors the implementation of the Convention. The Committee will also hear briefings from NGOs and national human rights institutions.

CEDAW’s dialogues with the above States Parties will take place from 10:00 to 13:00 and from 15:00 to 17:00 at Palais des Nations – Room XVI. Live webcasts of the session can be viewed at

The Committee’s concluding observations will be published on 6 March here:

Source:: UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to review Gabon, Azerbaijan, Ecuador, Tuvalu, Denmark, Kyrgyzstan, Eritrea, Maldives

Categories: African Press Organization

Statement Attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on Mozambique

NEW YORK, February 10, 2015/African Press Organization (APO)/ — The Secretary-General welcomes the news of the meetings between President Filipe Nyusi and Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama held in Maputo on 7 and 9 February. He takes note of the progress made in the talks and congratulates both leaders for their commitment to dialogue. He hopes the meetings would pave the way for the peaceful resolution of outstanding issues in respect of the constitutional framework and the work of the National Assembly. The Secretary-General reiterates the commitment of the United Nations to support Mozambique as it endeavours to promote development, strong democratic institutions as well as sustainable peace and stability.

Source:: Statement Attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on Mozambique

Categories: African Press Organization

Minister Flanagan discusses Ukraine, Libya, Yemen, and counterterrorism with EU counterparts

DUBLIN, Ireland, February 10, 2015/African Press Organization (APO)/ — The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, TD, today attended the monthly meeting of EU Foreign Affairs Ministers where Ukraine, the on-going crises in Libya and Yemen, and the EU’s efforts to combat international terrorism were among the matters discussed.

Speaking after the meeting the Minister said:

“We have maintained all along that the Ukraine crisis can only be resolved politically.

“I continue to believe that the Minsk agreement provides the basis for a solution to the crisis but a sustainable ceasefire is a key step to making progress.

“Dialogue with Russia and others remains crucial in the pursuit of a settlement that fully respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It was useful to hear of the on-going efforts by Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande in that regard.

“We have also recognised the need for pressure to reinforce that dialogue and that is why today we agreed unanimously to a set of additional listings against separatists in Eastern Ukraine and their supporters in Russia. These consist of an asset freeze and travel ban on 19 individuals and 9 entities involved in action against Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“To give space for the diplomatic efforts currently on-going, we have put the entry into force of these measures on hold until Monday 16 February.”

EU Ministers also discussed Counter-Terrorism:

“For the second time since the tragic attacks in Paris, we considered how the EU can most effectively prevent and combat international terrorism, including strengthening engagement with and support for, third countries, in particular in the Middle East and North Africa.

“As part of our efforts, we agreed that we should redouble our efforts to address underlying factors in particular the on-going conflicts in Europe’s southern neighbourhood,” Minister Flanagan said.

On Libya and Yemen, Minister Flanagan added:

“In Libya the situation remains extremely volatile, I however welcome the convening of UN brokered talks on Libya and I hope that all relevant actors will participate in this process so as to bring to an end the current conflict and the suffering being inflicted on the people of Libya.

“We also discussed the fragile situation Yemen, where I joined with my EU colleagues in expressing deep concern for the developing humanitarian, economic and security crisis in the country and our commitment to continue supporting Yemen in its political transition.”

Source:: Minister Flanagan discusses Ukraine, Libya, Yemen, and counterterrorism with EU counterparts

Categories: African Press Organization

IMF Executive Board Concludes 2014 Article IV Consultation with the Union of Comoros

MORONI, Comoros, February 9, 2015/African Press Organization (APO)/ — On February 4, 2015, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded the 2014 Article IV consultation1 with the Union of Comoros.

Comoros is a small, low-income and fragile-three island state with limited natural resources and connectivity to the rest of the world. Political instability and fractious inter-island relations marked the country during the first decades after independence from France in the mid-1970s. Political stability and economic turnaround have been in place following the adoption of a new constitution in 2009. Under the 2009–13 Extended Credit Facility (ECF) arrangement the secular decline in per capita GDP slowed. Additionally, authorities made progress in consolidating macroeconomic stability and advancing structural reforms that enabled Comoros to complete the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative in December 2012.

Economic growth was 3.5 percent in 2013 but is estimated to have eased to 3.3 percent in 2014, adversely affected by electricity disruptions and slower-than-expected implementation of the public investment program. Inflation has remained subdued in the low single digits. The current account deficit is projected to narrow to 7.4 percent of GDP in 2014 from 11.3 percent in 2013, reflecting a contraction in imports that resulted from lower imports of investment goods and lower fuel import prices, as well as higher remittances.

Economic growth is expected to firm to 3.5 percent in 2015, despite continuing headwinds from the electricity sector and a tight fiscal situation, supported by an acceleration in the pace of implementation of foreign-financed public investment and lower fuel prices. For the medium term, staff’s baseline assumption is that economic growth will average around 4 percent per annum, provided that reforms are implemented.

Implementation of the 2014 budget was challenging, particularly after mid-year. While revenues were broadly on target, resources were inadequate to meet the higher-than-budgeted wage bill resulting from an increase in teacher salaries and previously un-budgeted expenditures. Domestically-financed investment spending was severely constrained and temporary arrears were incurred on salaries and external debt.

The key short-term challenge is to find a better balance between available resources and expenditures so that arrears can be avoided. Spending plans need to be based on realistic expectations of the resources likely to be available. The 2015 budget is premised on this principle, but the scope for domestically-financed investment is inadequate, as obligatory spending on wages and salaries and debt service absorb most of domestic revenue.

For the medium term, the key challenges are to create fiscal space for infrastructure investment and social spending, accelerate inclusive growth and employment generation, and reduce poverty. The authorities need to focus their efforts on strengthening revenue administration and public financial management to expand fiscal space and improve transparency. Weaknesses in the business environment, including inadequate infrastructure, especially in the energy sector, and difficulties in contract enforcement represent important challenges.

Based on the external low income country debt sustainability analysis, IMF and World Bank staff have re-assessed Comoros’ risk of debt distress as moderate rather than high, which was the case in the previous DSA update completed in December 2013. The full inclusion of remittances in the analysis is the main reason for the improved debt sustainability outlook.

Executive Board Assessment2

Executive Directors welcomed Comoros’s improved policy implementation and economic performance in recent years. However, Directors noted that significant challenges remain—including high poverty, inadequate infrastructure, and vulnerabilities characteristic of small island economies. Prudent macroeconomic policies and stepped-up reform efforts are needed to bolster resilience, enhance competitiveness, and foster inclusive growth.

Directors saw achieving fiscal stability as a key near-term objective. Regretting the incurrence of domestic arrears in 2014, they encouraged the authorities to strike a better balance between available resources and expenditures. In this regard, Directors welcomed the government’s decision to base the 2015 budget on more realistic assumptions, and advised both enhanced prioritization and restraint, including containment of the wage bill.

Directors called for efforts to strengthen revenue mobilization and public financial management, and encouraged the authorities to implement quick-win reforms in both areas. They noted that revenue collection trails that of peer economies, and recommended strengthening administration through more effective management of the large tax payer list, better enforcement of compliance, and streamlining exemptions. Strengthening public financial management would help to limit the incurrence of arrears, enhance fiscal transparency and credibility of the budget, and create space for infrastructure investment and priority social spending. Directors noted the improvement in Comoros’s debt distress rating, and encouraged the authorities to continue to rely on grants and concessional financing.

Directors cautioned against excessive reliance on the potentially volatile proceeds from a new Economic Citizenship Program, and advised allocating these resources to investment projects, restructuring public enterprises, and strengthening external buffers. Strong safeguards are also needed to help prevent misuse of the program.

Directors stressed the need to develop the financial sector, and strengthen the central bank’s regulatory and supervisory oversight, including through risk-based supervision. They called for the development, with Fund technical assistance, of a resolution strategy to accelerate the recapitalization and restructuring of the Postal Bank.

Directors encouraged the authorities to expedite the pace of structural reforms in order to boost external competitiveness and growth prospects. Efforts are needed to strengthen the business climate through the removal of key supply-side constraints in the electricity, telecommunications, and financial sectors. Directors welcomed the progress in preparing a new Poverty Reduction Strategy, while calling for a strong private sector development component aimed at improving the attractiveness of the Comorian economy.

Directors encouraged the authorities to improve data quality and timeliness by prioritizing allocations to the new statistical agency and working with technical assistance providers.

Directors agreed that assistance from development partners is critical, given Comoros’s limited capacity to undertake complex reforms. They acknowledged the role that a new Fund arrangement could play in supporting the authorities’ reform efforts taking into account the small states’ challenges that Comoros is facing, and looked forward to early engagement on this issue.

Source:: IMF Executive Board Concludes 2014 Article IV Consultation with the Union of Comoros

Categories: African Press Organization