“For the executions, on the one hand, the victim was attached to a chair-like construction, whereas on the other hand a young tree was chosen for its elasticity. This tree was bent with force and attached to the head of the person to be executed, the head being placed in a net-like rope contraption. The executor with one well-adjusted blow severed the head from the trunk. This head, under the force of the suddenly released tree, was thus projected far away.”
The above account, written by Leon Hanolet in 1897 for the magazine La Belgique Coloniale, appears alongside a large black-and-white photograph showing the execution it describes. The image is one of many displayed along with 500 iron weapons in Fatal Beauty: Traditional Weapons From Central Africa, an outstanding exhibit currently running at the National Museum of History.
A display of Central African weapons of this size and scope has never been shown before in Taiwan and the museum has clearly done its homework. The weapons (acquired from European museums and private collections), large photos, illustrations and maps are all clearly marked in Chinese and English and concisely arranged.
Working in collaboration with guest curator Jan Elsen and Marc Leo Felix, an expert on Central African ritual and art, the museum divides most of the exhibit into “18 armament groups.” The exhibit’s principal theme is to present the diversity of the region’s swords, spears, daggers, sickles and throwing knives as a means of illustrating the importance that these weapons occupied in the tribal societies where they were used.
This theme is underlined by additional sections on iron smelting, weapons as a form of currency and the role of blacksmiths in tribal society, which provides context and depth and reveals that iron weapons bore as much a monetary and ritualistic importance in Central African society as they did one that was functional. A section on firearms demonstrates the adverse influence colonialism exerted on these peoples — a subtheme of the exhibit.
WHAT: Fatal Beauty: Traditional Weapons From Central Africa
WHERE: National Museum of History (國立歷史博物館), 49 Nanhai Rd,
Taipei City (台北市南海路49號)
WHEN: Until Aug. 16. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays, from 10am to 6pm; closed on Mondays. Call (02) 2361-0270
ON THE NET: www.nmh.gov.tw
A map of Africa accompanies the introduction for each group, with tribal borders highlighted in yellow. The museum lists the names of each tribal group (there are a total of 268 for all 18 groups) in high-block lettering beside which are a few paragraphs describing the region’s geographical characteristics and the weapons used.
For example, Group 1, which consists of the Fang, Kota, Bumali, Bakwele, Djem, Ndzabi, Ndassa, Wumbu, Mbaamba, Ndumu and Mbede peoples, covers an area that spans what is today’s Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. The introduction to this section states that the main weapons used by this group included bird-headed axes (as utensils and for rituals), crossbows (hunting) and barbed javelins (warfare). The weapons, dating from the 19th century, are clearly displayed below the short blurbs.
The illustrated maps introducing each section are of particular interest because they highlight the artificially imposed borders that make up today’s Africa. For example, the border separating Cameroon and the Central African Republic cuts straight through the traditional lands of the Gbaya peoples in Group 2.
The section on iron weapons as a form of currency illustrates how rules imposed by Europeans disrupted tribal society. The curators cite as an example the policies of King Leopold II of Belgium who signed a decree in 1887 setting up a common currency in the Belgian Congo similar to that found in Europe. This policy upset the traditional bartering system where prearranged rules of exchange determined the value of an object. As Jacques A. Schoonheyt writes in the exhibition catalogue, “… it was a lengthy and brutal process. The scale of values which pertained at the time was profoundly upset … [and] led to a breakdown of a whole series of traditions which had evolved over the years.”