An Appreciation of African Sculpture

An Appreciation
of African Sculpture

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The wooden Nkisi figure is an important piece in Herman Maril’s collection of African sculpture. In Kongo tradition, this object acts as a power figure in a village. An Nganga or healer, would have placed various substances and medicines in holes carved into the wood, in order to harness different types of spiritual energy. This particular sculpture can be considered an Nkondi because of the nails driven into the head—the act of hammering metal pieces into the figure is believed to release energy, in some cases for healing sickness.

Herman Maril was fascinated by the form of this sculpture, and would give lectures on it when he brought it to the University of Maryland campus. In his lecture notes, it is clear that Maril was concerned with the formal aesthetic values of the piece:

“We must look at it, not expecting to find beautiful figures, in the accepted sense, but to appreciate the striking designs, brought about by the manipulation of the planes, lines, and masses. In order to achieve the plastic relationship between the forms of the human figure, a great deal of distortion had to be resorted to, and once the plastic relationship is detected these distortions appear as absolutely necessary for the completeness of the design. The figures are new creations in themselves, recalling the human form in a general and formalized way, but independently justified by the absolute harmony of its parts.”

This excerpt is relevant to Maril’s own painting process, where a focus on “absolute harmony” of parts takes precedence over a strict representation of reality. In looking at the later paintings, it is possible that the manipulation of planes and masses Herman Maril saw in African figure sculpture was applied to his own work, where lines, forms, and fields of color are stretched and skewed in order to yield a specific aesthetic effect. Visual observation and memory are stripped down to their essential components, becoming solid forms in a harmonious composition.

- Louis Block, Class of 2017, Maryland Art Institute College
The wooden Nkisi figure is an important piece in Herman Maril’s collection of African sculpture. In Kongo tradition, this object acts as a power figure in a village. An Nganga or healer, would have placed various substances and medicines in holes carved into the wood, in order to harness different types of spiritual energy. This particular sculpture can be considered an Nkondi because of the nails driven into the head—the act of hammering metal pieces into the figure is believed to release energy, in some cases for healing sickness.

Herman Maril was fascinated by the form of this sculpture, and would give lectures on it when he brought it to the University of Maryland campus. In his lecture notes, it is clear that Maril was concerned with the formal aesthetic values of the piece:

“We must look at it, not expecting to find beautiful figures, in the accepted sense, but to appreciate the striking designs, brought about by the manipulation of the planes, lines, and masses. In order to achieve the plastic relationship between the forms of the human figure, a great deal of distortion had to be resorted to, and once the plastic relationship is detected these distortions appear as absolutely necessary for the completeness of the design. The figures are new creations in themselves, recalling the human form in a general and formalized way, but independently justified by the absolute harmony of its parts.”

This excerpt is relevant to Maril’s own painting process, where a focus on “absolute harmony” of parts takes precedence over a strict representation of reality. In looking at the later paintings, it is possible that the manipulation of planes and masses Herman Maril saw in African figure sculpture was applied to his own work, where lines, forms, and fields of color are stretched and skewed in order to yield a specific aesthetic effect. Visual observation and memory are stripped down to their essential components, becoming solid forms in a harmonious composition.

- Louis Block, Class of 2017, Maryland Art Institute College
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Maril’s “Artist Comtemplating an African Bird”
1970, oil on canvas, 30 x 50
Courtesy of Adirondack College, Queensbury, NY

Maril’s “Artist Comtemplating an African Bird”
1970, oil on canvas, 30 x 50
Courtesy of Adirondack College, Queensbury, NY