In A&O we are constantly looking for roots of beauty and the power of art.  It sometimes seems (and who am I to doubt it?) that there is a metaphysical connection to what might be perceived as an alternate universe—or past—or future.  Beauty can take you to places previously unknown or otherwise inaccessible. (Even if only unexplored (or forgotten) corners of your self—your own consciousness.)  This is a prominent version of TRANSCENDENCE–“going beyond.” 

As an example of an explicit awareness and pursuit of this power to communicate with a supernatural realm, Rand, a collector of African art has commented on figures created by the Baoulé peoples of Côte d’Ivoire. For them, the excellence of a work of art (sculpture of an ancestor) is linked to its power as an instrument of divination.  Is this implicit in all art?     

 “Among the Baule [Baoulé] peoples of Côte d’Ivoire, human experience evolves out of and remains inextricably linked to the ancestral spirit world, or blolo (roughly, “the village of truth”), which controls and determines the fate of the living.   Divination figures such as these serve as links to the spirit world and are a critical element in a Baule diviner’s professional practice. Baule diviners are individuals who have been selected by spirits, or asye usu, as mediums through which to communicate important insights into the human condition. The sculptures are often described as the asye usu’s “stool,” a figurative resting point for the spirits. Divination figures represent idealized male or female figures in their prime, which are considered by the asye usu as desirable forms to inhabit, and so are used to draw the unruly spirits out of their home in the bush and into the village.

This male figure most likely represents a sculpture made for a spirit husband, Blolo bian. According to Vogel, ‘these figures represent an ideal of man or womanhood, embodying not only physical perfection, but social, moral and intellectual achievement. Spirit spouse sculptures can be seen as a kind of opposite sex alter ego and are a fascinating case of the use of art in Africa for individual psychological relief. The Baule are one of a number of African groups who believe that before birth, human beings all had Blolo bla (spirit wife) and Blolo bian (spirit husband) spouses in the other world who can influence their lives. Baule artists and their nearby neighbors seem to be the only artists in Africa who traditionally carved figural representations of spirit spouses’  The more elaborate the ornamental and decorative features of an individual work, the more time has been invested in its execution by the sculptor, and the greater the expense to its owner. The culmination of such efforts hopefully results in the creation of a sculpture that is most attractive to the asye usu. When used by Baule diviners, such works not only flatter the asye usu but also add to the theatrical spectacle of a public pronouncement of a divinatory revelation. Their aesthetic quality dazzles potential clients with the caliber and sophistication of the instruments associated with a diviner. 

The beauty of a figure advertises its owner’s success as an intermediary with the spirit world. Consequently, diviners prosper by commissioning superlative figures as divinatory instruments. Ownership of extraordinary objects thus directly affects a diviner’s professional standing and enhances public perception of his or her efficacy.”   

(Noted in a highly personal website by Rand, a collector of African art. (http://www.randafricanart.com/) at a subpage describing the art of the  Baoulé peoples of Côte d’Ivoire. (http://www.randafricanart.com/Baule_Blolo_bian_figure.html (downloaded December 2018). his Sources: “A History of Art in Africa / Africa – The Art of a Continent”) (bold font emphasis is mine)

Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.