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The Art of Healing. Exhibit Displays Traditional Medical Instruments of Africa

By Sally Squires, The Washington Post, Tuesday March 2 1999; Page Z10

In traditional Africa, illness was not simply a physical problem, but a sign of life gone awry. Disease could be caused by immoral living, by failing to please the spiritual world or by somehow alienating long-dead ancestors.

Bringing life back into balance is the subject of a new exhibit at the National Museum of Health & Medicine at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Northwest Washington. "To Cure and Protect: Sickness and Health in African Art" displays 100 18th- and 19th-century medical relics from sub-Saharan Africa and gives a sense of how diviners, healers and herbalists practiced medicine.

There are dainty bird amulets, delicate divining staffs and fierce-looking masks depicting deformity.

At first glance, many of the objects in the exhibit seem to bear little resemblance to modern, Western medical practices. But museum officials say a closer look reveals some of the common ground between African and Western medical thought.

A woven diviner's basket "reminds one of the Western doctor's black bag," said Adrianne Noe, director of the museum. "Both are filled with a kind of mystery."

An iron divining rod topped with delicate birds about to take flight resembles the caduceus, the winged staff entwined in snakes that is the traditional emblem of Western medicine.

African calabashes with intricate stoppers held herbs and healing potions not unlike the bottles for drugs that are so integral to Western medicine--some of which are derived from natural compounds.

Where the traditional African healer paid homage to the power of the unseen, the Western physician and researcher today recognize the importance of the placebo effect, or the belief in a cure, and the impact of religion, spirituality and the "will to live" on the patient's outcome.

"Notice how much we have in common with the peoples of the African continent--the human desire to protect and save lives," writes physician Bernard M. Wagner, a retired professor of pathology at New York University Medical Center and collector of African art, in the exhibit's catalogue. "Life is always precious, and humans will invoke whatever it takes to fight for survival and maintain a quality of life."

In the sub-Saharan cultures of Africa that meant making peace with the forces believed to foster and promote illness. In the Congo, carved wooden figures of a man buffed to a glossy, bronze-like sheen were kept in shrines and used in special ceremonies to represent youthful strength, energy, intelligence, and physical and mental health.

Elsewhere, wooden figures were strategically placed to encircle a village as a way of safeguarding health.

Masks were often used in festivals to pay homage to the forces affecting the living. Sometimes they were grotesque and frightening, designed to depict reincarnated ancestors who were immoral, agitated and wayward. But others, which have inspired the cubism of European artists Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Andre Derain, often showed the tragedy of illness. Three in the exhibit tell the tale of a respected hunter who was stricken with facial paralysis and believed to have been bewitched by a jealous rival.

The African healer confronted not just life-threatening infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, malaria and leprosy (now known as Hansen's disease), but also conditions including fever-induced seizures and infertility. A small carved ivory object in the exhibit called a balskitekki shows a bulbous, pregnant woman and was worn as an amulet to enhance fertility by women.

The goal with many of these objects was to connect with the "lovely, powerful, strong and effective spirit of ancestors," Noe said. "Healers tried to connect with the people who have faced the same moral, ethical and health issues as they faced."

The exhibit runs through Aug. 23 at the National Museum of Health & Medicine, Walter Reed Army Medical Center Campus, 6900 Georgia Ave. NW. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. Tours are available for groups of 10 or more. For more information, call 202-782-2200 or visit the museum's Web site www.natmedmuse.afip.org