From Idol to Art. African ‘objects-with-power’: a challenge for missionaries, anthropologists and museum curators

Book cover Harrie LeytenObjects with power, so common in Africa, are neither beautiful nor easy to understand, and as such were a challenge for missionaries, anthropologists and curators of ethnographic museums from the moment they got involved with Africa, in the middle of the 19th century. Each group of professionals tried to come to grips with these objects, reacting – over time – quite differently on them. The three professions are shown to appropriate the meanings of these strange objects to suit their own objectives, dependent on historical era and type of field exposure. Missionaries tended to see them as expressions of heathenism, while anthropologists started to look for ‘master symbols’ and gradually discovered their emic meanings. Africa curators were usually not in a position to research these objects in depth in their museums. This book takes three of these objects as its starting point, ikenga, minkisi and asuman, and analyses the processes of professional appropriation. The aim is to glean how these professions learned from each other – or not -, to sketch processes of attribution of meaning, and to contribute to a better understanding of the role of objects of power in their culture. As such it is also a study in the materiality of African religions, a new approach in that discipline. The research is based on available literature and makes use of the author’s own experiences as a missionary, anthropologist, Africa curator, and lecturer in museology.

This book, Harrie Leyten's PhD dissertation, has appeared as volume 59 of the African Studies Collection.

Read the book here.

Author(s) / editor(s)

Harrie Leyten

About the author(s) / editor(s)

Harrie LeytenHarrie Leyten (1935) spent the first ten years of his long career as a missionary in Ghana. He went on to study social anthropology at the University of Oxford before he became the Africa curator at the Amsterdam Tropenmuseum and a lecturer of museology at the University of Amsterdam and the Reinwardt Academy.


How to order

This book can be ordered from the ASC webshop.
Price: € 20,-.
ISBN: 978-94-6173-720-5