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Panels

(P02)

The materiality of religion in Africa during the European expansion

Location Sala 78, Piso 1
Date and Start Time 18 July, 2013 at 11:30

Convenors

Kalle Kananoja (European University Institute) email
Madalina Florescu (CEBRAP) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel examines religious encounters between Africans and Europeans through the lens of cultural materiality. By examining the role of religious objects in Africa, it interrogates the conflicts and (mis)interpretations that rose over the uses of material objects in religious life.

Long Abstract

Religious encounters were a major source of misunderstanding between Africans and Europeans. The contributions in this panel examine religion in precolonial and early colonial Africa through the lens of cultural materiality. Missionaries of different denominations had varying views on religion and materiality. While Catholic Fathers sought to replace indigenous objects with Catholic images, Protestants placed the emphasis on "inner belief" and shunned objects altogether, which was close to the strategy adopted by some New Christian or Jewish settlers in West Africa. The wide and varied practices of using religious objects in rituals and for protection of people and communities have been addressed to a great extent by archaeologists, art historians and anthropologists of Africa, yet the changes that took place over time and in contact with Europeans are poorly understood. How did things that linked the visible/material to the invisible/immaterial transform when African traditional religions and Islam came into contact with Christianity and Judaism in different parts of the continent? What role did materiality - amulets, images of deities and ancestors, natural objects, iconography, crucifixes, prayer beads, relics - play in African popular religion across time and space? The panel will also interrogate and explore the kinds of expectations, conflicts and (mis)interpretations that rose over the uses of material objects in religious life.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

"They worship dicks and are idolaters": African religious objects and the relation between missionaries and African cosmologies

Author: Carlos Almeida (Tropical Research Institute, Portugal)  email

Short Abstract

From the accounts of the missionary experience in Central Africa until the first quarter of the century XVIII, this presentation seeks to draw the complex framework of relationships that were woven from these objects between European missionaries and African societies .

Long Abstract

In 1691, returning from his mission in Nsoyo on the left bank of the Congo River, Father Andrea Pavia brought an indefinite number of African religious objects. Admittedly, the missionary gave those pieces in the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, but it is not known their final destiny. The african cultural objects are a constant presence in the reports produced by catholic missionaries who, since the sixteenth century, crossed the region and developed activity, both in Kongo, and Mbundu regions, further south. Referenced generically in reports of priests, persecuted so insistent during their everyday wanderings through Africa, these objects are rarely described both in its visual presentation, and in its practical purposes. In its uniqueness, the collection assembled and brought to Europe by Andrea da Pavia raises various questions referring both to the relationship that the Catholic missionaries had with these objects, and in general, with the cosmological universe that gave them meaning, and at the same time, for the way that in certain periods and in sectors of African societies such objects coexisted without apparent conflict with the sacred objects of Catholicism. From the path of Andrea Pavia and using other accounts of the missionary experience in Central Africa until the first quarter of the century XVIII, this presentation seeks to draw the complex framework of relationships that were woven from these objects between European missionaries and African societies.

Spheres of worship: transcultural Christian objects in the Kingdom of Kongo

Author: Kristen Windmuller-Luna (Princeton University)  email

Short Abstract

Kongolese Christian objects made between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries reflected the simultaneous, lateral nature of Kongolese Christianities and their position within global political, economic and religious networks.

Long Abstract

Portuguese missionaries arrived in the Kingdom of Kongo in the late fifteenth century, resulting in the voluntary conversion of the king and his domain soon thereafter. But what was the relationship between the kingdom's new and old faiths, and how did Christian objects reflect this? This paper investigates Christian objects' multiple forms and functions in the Kingdom of Kongo, including sculptures, crucifixes, vestments, and medallions. New research on Kongolese crucifixes in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents a case study for examining the roles of Christian objects in the kingdom, the routes they travelled, and the significance of their later European circulation.

At least a dozen different European missions and Kongolese Christian assemblies used imported and locally made objects to spread their version of the faith along regional trade and missionizing routes. Through the mid-nineteenth century, these simultaneous Christianities connected with the larger Christian world via long-distance trade routes to Brazil, Angola and Europe and through political and religious ties to Portugal and the Roman Papacy. The movement of people, objects and teachings through cities and rural regions resulted in varied doctrinal adherence and religious blending, as well as conflict between foreign missionaries, Kongolese Christians and indigenous religious practitioners. Kongolese Christian objects were equally diverse, reflecting a range of African and European visual vocabularies. Expressive of personal and public devotion, as well as political allegiance or individual status, these objects reflected the simultaneous, lateral nature of Kongolese Christianities and their position within global political, economic and religious networks.

Representing the divine: Church Missionary Society (CMS) strategies of evangelism in nineteenth-century Yorubaland

Author: Olufunke Adeboye (University of Lagos)  email

Short Abstract

This study analyses the strategies of evangelism adopted by Church Missionary Society (CMS) agents in Yorubaland in the 19th century. It argues that even though material objects were not used to represent the divine, they were used to advertise the benefits of Western culture that would accrue to Christians.

Long Abstract

This paper examines the strategies adopted by both foreign and native agents of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in evangelizing Yorubaland in the nineteenth century. These missionaries denounced traditional idols and the various sacred symbols of the local populace without providing other material alternatives. Even when the people repeatedly demanded for charms and other physical symbols from the new faith, the missionaries did not oblige them. Instead, they insisted on faith in an invisible God. To press home their message of faith, they carried out impressive acts of sacrificial love and flaunted some material artifacts of Western culture in the local communities. Although, this caught the eyes of the local population, it did not produce too many converts. The spatial practices of the missionaries as well as their interaction with other religions in the local environment are also examined in this study. A central argument of this essay is that though material objects were not used to represent the divine, they were always at hand to advertise the benefits which adherence to Christianity could bring. This created a delicate situation in which Christian claims were often misunderstood. The onus was thus on missionaries to clear the air and show that the material objects did not represent the divine. The sources used for this study include nineteenth-century journals and correspondence of CMS agents as well as the accounts of foreign travelers passing through Yorubaland in the same period.

The "fetish" in the mid-19th century encounter between Africans and CMS agents on the lower Niger

Author: Femi Kolapo (University of Guelph)  email

Short Abstract

The Church of England’s CMS missionaries on the Niger River (Nigeria) from the 1850s actively denounced religious objects of their hosts but also fetishisied and sacralised their own “missionary” spaces, architecture, European imports, and books in their efforts to convert the people.

Long Abstract

This presentation will argue that while the Church of England's CMS missionaries on the Niger River in what is now Nigeria were engaged in active denunciation of the local religious objects of people they wanted to convert, they were also actively engaged in fetishising and sacralising their own "missionary" spaces, architecture, European exotic imports, and books. Journals and reports of the missionaries include disparaging statements about traditional ritual objects and cases of destruction by or surrender of such materials to the missionaries. This studied antagonism to traditional religious objects was a major means by which these missionaries in mid-19th century Niger area projected the worth of missionary Christianity that they advocated and measured its influence against traditional religions. Further up north on confluence of the Niger with the Benue, "Muslim" dress code, identity and religion intersected significantly. Here also, the interrogation and

demarcation of boundaries between on the one hand, "Mohammedan", and on the other, "Christian" and "pagan" dress came to underline missionary Christian proselytization. Thus, denunciation and contestation of local and Muslim sacred objects and "fetish" and (re)constitutioning of materials associated with the missions and the missionaries as sacred and solemn were significant paradoxical trends that characterised the encounter between the CMS missionaries and the Africans among whom they were stationed.

The anchor, the plough, images and the Bible: uses of material objects in religions of 19th century South Africa

Author: Johan Strijdom (University of South Africa)  email

Short Abstract

This paper uses debates in material religion and political theology to analyze ways in which the anchor, the plough, images and the Bible embodied and mediated changing political, economic and cultural relations in encounters between Christian and African indigenous religions of 19th century South Africa.

Long Abstract

The encounters between Christian and African indigenous religions in 19th century South Africa may be productively analyzed in terms of the changing political, economic and cultural functions of material objects, not only in the religious practices, but also in the comparative study of religions of the time. Taking as point of departure David Chidester's perceptive analysis of the anchor, the plough, images and the Bible within this colonial context in Savage systems: Colonialism and comparative religion in southern Africa (1996), I will consider ways in which his contribution may be read, problematized and taken further in the light of key debates in contemporary religious studies on postcolonial theory, material religion, political theology and development studies. In which ways, I will ask, did these concrete objects embody and mediate struggles over colonial invasion, land expropriation and cultivation, cultural and economic exchange, and the written and printed text? What impact have these issues since had on the comparative study of religions? Importantly, how might this analysis affect the often implicit moral judgments in our academic discourses and practices?

Objects of the in-between: the sacred meanings of commodities and the politics of trading culture in coastal east Africa

Author: Sandy Prita Meier (University of Illinois)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I explore the politics of Swahili materiality and how exotic imports, such as porcelain dishes and bowls, took on sacred meanings in the port cities of the Swahili coast.

Long Abstract

In this paper I explore the politics of Swahili materiality and how objects of maritime trade, such as porcelain dishes and bowls, represent a complex encounter between African and European systems of signification. Archeological, written, and oral evidence suggests that already by the fourteenth century residents of such east African port cities as Lamu and Mombasa (and later Zanzibar) actively collected porcelain dishes, vases and objet d'art from all over the world. These seemingly mundane objects of trade not only carried commercial value, however. Porcelain bowls embellished the walls of sacred spaces, such as mosques and tombs, and local east African patricians collected hundreds of ceramic objects as icons of family pedigree and religious purity. In local worldviews the true significance of china lies in its connection to the oceanic networks of Islam—it surface ornament evoked the calligraphic abstraction of Islamic visual culture in the eyes of east Africans. Yet European derided the desire for these objects, presenting it as a strange misuse of things that did not "belong" to Africa. It was dismissed as a form of superficial "fetishism" and an example of the African inability to understand the use-value of utilitarian things. Ultimately I want to suggest that Swahilis were very much aware of European perspectives, and that by inserting such "exotic" objects into the most important spaces of daily life they intentionally created a symbolic landscape that did not "make sense" to outsiders.

A case of ignored and misunderstood religious materiality: the Shona-speaking peoples of Mozambique and Zimbabwe

Author: William Dewey (The Pennsylvania State University)  email

Short Abstract

An examination of how colonial entities ignored the objects that are key to Shona religious beliefs. The Shona do not use masks or figurative sculpture. Their material representations of the ancestors are utilitarian objects such as snuff containers, ceremonial knives and axes, and headrests.

Long Abstract

This paper will examine how colonial entities ignored or at best misunderstood the material objects that are key to understanding Shona religious beliefs. The Shona do not make or use masks or figurative sculpture and so Europeans never felt the need for the replacement strategies witnessed in other parts of Africa. The most important Shona religious leaders are spirit-mediums. At both the local (family) and regional (chieftaincy) level these religious practitioners become possessed by the spirits of the ancestors, and interact with the living to help resolve problems. Apart from ritual dress, there are no material objects involved, and instead it is the immaterial embodied voice of the ancestors that is important. Spirit-mediums did come into conflict with colonial forces, as is illustrated by the arrest and execution of spirit-mediums during the first "Chimurenga" (war against the British in the 1890s), and the involvement of spirit-mediums during the second "Chimurenga" (war of liberation during the 1970s). What was totally ignored, however, was the fact that there are material representations of the ancestors that the Shona use: the 'supposedly simple', utilitarian objects such as snuff containers, ceremonial knives and axes, and headrests. These are passed down through generations (as part of inheritance rituals at funerals), and are routinely brought out when appeals are made to the ancestors. Probably because they were not the "Religious Art" colonials were used to they were ignored or misunderstood, but for the Shona they remained as a subtle, potent, but hidden focus for their religious beliefs!

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.