Published in Int. Journal of Anthropology – Vol. 30 – n.2 – 2015
Jacques Maquet was one of the greatest anthropologists of his generation, a loyal Belgian with much of the deliberateness, precision, and detachment associated with the literary genius of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. He made an indelible mark on African Studies. His writing and teaching has had a particular significance for scholars of African art in many spheres, including aesthetic anthropology, ethnography, museum studies, the introduction of Africa to a 1960s audience of scholars eager to know about Africa, and finally in the relevance of his findings to many other disciplines.
Born in 1919, educated in Louvain in Belgium, the Sorbonne, and London, he continued throughout his life to be a force in both the Francophone and Anglophone academic worlds. Most of his ten major books were printed in both languages, the earlier ones first in French and then in English. Several books were also published in German editions. A prolific and conscientious scholar, he published more than 250 articles, papers, book chapters, reviews, and notes in addition to his well-received books. His career spans three continents. His early work on hermeneutics and his exploration of how knowledge systems were created, passed on, and developed, was carried out in Europe. In the 1950s and ‘60s he worked in Africa, focusing on the stratified social and cultural system of Ruanda (now Rwanda). He taught at the University of Paris from 1960-68, receiving his D. Litt. in 1973. He was at Case Western University in Cleveland from 1968-70. In 1970, he joined the UCLA Anthropology faculty and was very much associated with his newly defined purview of aesthetic anthropology when he expanded his research to Southeast Asia, particularly Sri Lanka, where he and his wife Gisele made many visits.
His first major volume, Sociologie de la connaissance, was published in Louvain in 1949, and the English edition, The Sociology of Knowledge, came out in 1951, a year before he received his fourth doctorate, this time from London, and established his hermeneutic distinction. Besides anthropology and sociology, his early work covered both law and philosophy, and he used his backgrounds in those disciplines to apply a cross-cultural approach to his exploration of knowledge systems. He constantly sought to explain the meaning of bodies of knowledge and tradition. His later interests in many ways grew out of this early exploration. In his 1979 Introduction to Aesthetic Anthropology, he articulated his approach. It was this aspect of his work that brought him into closer contact with the then newly expanding field of African art. Whereas many art historians were focused on individual works of art, Maquet was concerned with what he termed the ethos of a people, the social and cultural context and hitherto unexplored and/or hidden bodies of knowledge. He was concerned with the collective significance of art objects to human behavior and social organization. Aesthetic anthropology was a relatively new sub-field concerned with ideas of beauty, the meaning, manipulation, and use of symbols but also of the different ways that existed of looking at everyday objects. He explored the significance of specific objects and their symbolic relevance in the societies he studied. Much of his discipline had been generated by his close study of the stratified societies of Ruanda, particularly the Batutsi, in which he looked not only at aspects of social organization but also at the cultural context and performance arts of the different groups.
Like many of his generation, his early fieldwork and employment was in Belgian imperial Africa. He was inspired by Daryll Forde’s comparative initiatives and his long essay on Ruanda’s stratified society in Forde’s 1954 African World: Studies in Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples provides much of the rationale for his later work. It has to be remembered that in 1949, when Maquet began his work in Ruanda, there was no formal African art history. Arts and crafts were subsumed under ethnography or ‘primitive’ art. During his time at Institut pour la Recherche Scientifique en Afrique Centrale (IRSAC ), Maquet provided in his writings a comprehensive view of the precolonial political and social structure of the Kingdom of Ruanda as well as the life styles of its people. Everything changed during the colonial period, and dramatically after the first slaughter of tens of thousands of Batutsi and their flight to neighboring states in 1959, even before the end of Belgian colonial rule in 1961.
By this time Maquet had been Professor of Anthropology at the University in Elizabethville, now Lubumbashi, and Astrida had resumed the name of Butare. In addition to his now seminal 1961 book The Premise of lnequality in Ruanda, he assembled a valuable and beautiful photo archive and in 1957 published Ruanda: essai photographique sur une societe africaine en transition and with Luc de Heusch produced several films that linked performance arts and material culture in Ruanda. I was drawn to IRSAC by the museum that Maquet helped to create, which became a model for many later African folk museums. Material culture was beautifully and comprehensively presented and many crafts kept alive by reproducing them in a museum setting, even a typical Tutsi house of grass and reeds.
In 1970 Maquet was invited to UCLA, where he stayed till 1990 serving as chair of the anthropology department from 1978-83. In 1972 his two most popular books, which influenced a large number of American students new to Africa, were published by Oxford University Press: Africanity: The Cultural Unity of Black Africa and Civilizations of Black Africa. During his time at UCLA, his research became focused on Asia, where he surveyed cosmological belief systems and philosophies across many societies; in 1986 Yale University Press published his The Aesthetic Experience: An Anthropologist Looks at the Visual Arts. He also convened several outstanding Harry Hoijer lecture series on different subfields of anthropology and edited three of the proceedings concerned with Marxian perspectives, linguistic anthropology, and symbols in anthropology.
On a personal level, I particularly remember that Jacques’ office was probably the tidiest and most visually enticing office I’ve ever seen, with no clutter anywhere and a single file on his desk and often a single beautiful flower in an elegant vase. He was an effective graduate mentor and his former students teach in Asia, North America, and Europe. In 2005 he was awarded a special life-time honor of distinction by the James Coleman African Studies Center at UCLA, from which he retired as a most distinguished Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, and a much beloved teacher and scholar.
The original version of this article was published in African Arts (2013) Vol. 46(4). It is reprinted here, slightly edited, by permission of the author.
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