Faith, where art thou? African religions are on show at the Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève

Geneva, 15 May 2018

As the number-four exhibition of the MEG since the Swiss museum’s reopening, “Africa – Ecstatic Religions” draws up a portrait of the diversity and vivacity of African religious forms, their differences and reciprocal influences, but also their links: ecstasy as a means to experience one’s faith.

“Belief, ritual and spiritual experience: these are the cornerstones of religion, and the greatest of them is the last.” Boris Wastiau chose to quote Ioan Myrddin Lewis’ Ecstatic Religion (1971) to define the focuses of his exhibition, “Africa – Ecstatic Religions”. Perhaps he could also have borrowed the words of Mircea Eliade, who wrote an essay in 1964 (“La quête des origines de la religion”, published in La Nostalgie des Origines, also in 1971): “We know that we can only seize hold of the sacred through manifestations that are always historically conditioned. But the study of these manifestations doesn’t tell us what the sacred is, nor what a religious experience truly means.” Divided into four sections that cover different historical moments and circumstances, the exhibition offers a rich presentation of Africa’s religious practices. It explores divergences and hybridation in worship tradition and culture, but also history, from the Hegira to colonisation, and the exhibition’s main focus, religious ecstasy. Ecstasy is the technique and endeavour to draw as close as possible to the divine realm, until the body gets caught up in the process – penetrated by a spirit or abandoned by the soul. This, according to the curator and a number of academics cited in the slick catalogue, is the common point of the diverse manifestations of religion in Africa. It is also a more intimate way of looking at religion than usual, from the perspective of emotional experience. “What believers experience, being too subjective, is rarely a focus of research”, regrets Boris Wastiau.


And so we have four sections: the first on monotheisms in a broad sense, which arrived on the African continent very early on: Judaism, through the successive diasporas of various communities, from the 3rd century onwards; Christianity, introduced by prophet-missionaries including Tertullian and St Augustine, between the 2nd and the 5th century; Islam through military conquests as of the 7th century. Expressions of these monotheisms are crossbred with local beliefs and cultures, whether we’re talking about an Ethiopian Orthodox benediction cross, a votive sabre crafted by Tunisian mystic Sidi Amor Abada or a Senegalese Koranic amulet. These worship- related objects are displayed alongside contemporary photographic works: Christian Lutz’s photos of the rituals of religious communities in Nigeria or Geneva, like the Congolese Kimbanguists or Eritrean Orthodox communities; Fabrice Monteiro’s portraits of the Senegalese Mourides, a Muslim brotherhood; Anthony Pappone’s shots of Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox communities. Sensitive photographs in which we often see facial expressions distorted by trances, and images of mingling religious practices. The second section looks at the basics of African religions: divination, sacrifice and ancestor worship. Before the emergence of monotheisms, even if the continent’s religious forms were extremely diverse, they found common ground around this core, manifestly related to a preoccupation with death. “These practices, rejected in one block by the Christian world, are deeply religious”, Boris Wastiau suggests. “They reveal human means for communicating with the invisible.” On display: divination objects from different ethnic groups, like the Sikidy seeds used in Madagascar to foretell the future, sets of perforated strips used for spider divination in the Cameroon, or Ngombo divinatory baskets found in central Africa. Photos also tackle the issue of sacrifice, among the Bobos in Burkina Faso or the Luvales in Zambia... Also watch out for the superb “retrospective” of funerary monuments from Madagascar, thanks to numerous photos taken by French linguist and ethnographer Jacques Faublée.

The third section concerns possessive trances. A powerful subject, which Belgian anthropologist Luc de Heusch defined as the following in his La Transe et ses entours (2006): “Possession is a passive state during which a god or spirit takes hold of the body of a follower, considered his ’steed’, ’workhorse’ or ’spouse’, while the shaman himself enters into a trance to go out ahead to meet the gods in the mythical universe. Often, he has to emerge victorious from formidable trials. However, if the possessed person dies, dances or speaks, it is because he incarnates a god with whom he identifies entirely. In one case the trance is involuntarily undergone in the other, it is voluntary, self-induced.” Videos by artists (Theo Eshetu filmed trances from Zâr worship, originating in Ethiopia) and anthropologists (for example on Chipango fertility worship, immortalised by Boris Wastiau himself) give an idea of the power of these rituals, and the way they approach images, through metaphor, metonymy or analogy. An extensive collection of “rage sticks” from Benin – wooden sticks dressed with intricately-worked metallic sculptures in human or animal forms – accompany the videos. Finally, the last section on “magical- religious universes” tackles other areas not dealt with in the other sections: a complex compilation of religious gestures and objects that do not subscribe to one of the main forms of worship. Of particular note: a superb Chikunza dance and mask set from the Tchokwés (Angola), used hereditarily to incarnate fertility. Strength and life flow from the set, immobile, even if it is usually worn by a man wielding a machete.

The ethnographic exhibition and its curator

Boris Wastiau has organised a densely packed exhibition with ideas spilling over in different directions. The MEG incidentally – and this might be disconcerting for some – has a forward-thinking vision of ethnographic exhibitions. Gone are the comparative studies found at so many other institutions; this one prefers a inclusive vision of exhibition and clearly tends to contextualise ethnographic pieces – an intention expressed by immersing visitors in a handful of scenographic experiences, which are more or less successful. The upshot is that we no longer compare the objects to one another, but to the world. Two worlds even: the one in which the objects came into being, and the one in which we look at them, uprooted, today. Between these two worlds, the object’s function has changed, transitioning from a cultural to an aesthetic object. Boris Wastiau combines different sources: ethnographic objects, old and contemporary photographs, films, and works by contemporary artists like the five kaleidoscopic videos along the exhibition route by Theo Eshetu, invited as resident artist for the project. There are even detours that forage into Pop culture. Objects are rooted in their original environment; at the same time, we see the images that these practices have engendered, some with ramifications that have reached us. No claims are made of exhaustiveness or truth, but of the forging of relationships. Boris Wastiau’s project also carries a touch of politics. Take the diptych by Monteiro which opens the exhibition: Holy 1, and Holy 2 (2014). Two portraits of the same woman in two nun’s habits distinguished only by their colour. The first holds a Koranic tablet in one hand, while making the Christian sign of benediction with the other. The second woman holds a Bible while her hand traces the name of Allah. To sum up, wash yourself clean of your prejudices before you go to the exhibition. Make sure you see it with fresh... and naive eyes.

This is the type of project that demands strong involvement on the part of the curator. Even more so in this case, for the exhibition shows a host of photos and films taken by Boris Wastiau himself. Before becoming director of the MEG, Boris Wastiau travelled throughout Africa, documenting its rituals, and completed a thesis on the anthropology of Africanist art – in 1992, for his doctorate, he went to Zambia to study the initiatory masks of the Luvale before specialising in all Central African religions. From these voyages, the current exhibition inherits a wealth of documents. As well as a desire to translate research into images. And the emotion that streams from them, is palpable.

Clément Thibault