A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
African art is Elvehjem 'niche' show
but lack of space is problem
If you want to know why Chancellor John Wiley recently proposed a 10-year, multimillion-dollar redesign of the University of Wisconsin's east campus to create a new arts district (as well as student services and new dormitories), take a trip down to the Elvehjem Museum of Art.
Up on the second floor, discreetly tucked away between the touring Early American "Reflections" show and the permanent Asian gallery, you will find a newly installed "niche" exhibit of African art, which runs through June 30. The niche show contains 16 ceremonial and memorial objects, including masks and pottery. But it is just a foretaste of a major show of 60 objects that will open next spring.
In turn -- and more to the point -- that bigger spring show will be just a taste of the entire collection of 800 African art objects that the Elvehjem is hoping to get donated from the Bareiss family collection in Greenwich, Conn.
Trouble is, the museum's permanent storage space is already crammed with more than 14,000 objects, and the current exhibition space -- plagued by heat and humidity problems -- can only accommodate up to about 800 objects at one time. Which is why Wiley's plan proposes adding major storage and exhibition space to the state's second largest art museum.
"There is no question we desperately need the space," says Elvehjem Director Russell Panczenko, adding he's "delighted" to have a chancellor who sees the arts and humanities as a priority.
Although the public pays more attention to touring shows and temporary exhibitions, Panczenko says, the real purpose of the museum is to support the art history programs at the university.
And limited space adds up to limited learning opportunities.
"There are several major collections out there that are considering making Madison their permanent home," explains Panczenko. "But the question that keeps coming up is: 'What will you do with it?' They say, 'We don't want it just sitting in storage somewhere.'
"Now, we will never be able to put all of it permanently on view," Panczenko adds, noting preservation as well as space issues. "But with more space, you can rotate objects so the public and the students get to see more of what you have."
The African art show is a case in point.
"We're certainly interested in getting the collection," Panczenko says. "We have a very strong African studies program, one of the strongest in the country. So this could be a wonderful opportunity. It's very, very large, and it fits into our teaching needs."
Adds Panczenko: "There really is no African collection in Wisconsin or even Chicago -- you can go to Minneapolis, but that's a long haul -- so this is a rare opportunity."
The new niche show is a good example of all the various and complex dynamics involved.
For one, it was curated by Nichole Bridges, a graduate student who was raised in Oklahoma, did her undergraduate work at Amherst College and came to Madison specifically to work with Professor Henry Drewell, for whom she is a teaching assistant in his "Introduction to African Art and Architecture" course.
Bridges -- whose curatorial efforts not only train her for a possible museum career but also help the Elvehjem to overcome its current staff shortage -- says she chose the objects on display very carefully.
"There are leadership objects restricted to use by chiefs or kings, things like ceremonial axes and fly whisks," she explains. "There are also figures that have magical powers and serve to protect individuals and communities."
The materials, she notes, include ivory, wood and clay. The oldest object dates back to about 1200, and the most recent ones come from the early 20th century. The figures include indigenous people but also a colonial police officer.
"I wanted to illustrate the breadth that is represented in the collection as a whole," says Bridges, who will also curate the larger show in the spring. "These are visually striking objects, and some of them are very valuable. I chose them to demonstrate the diversity and aesthetic style and geographical representation. Some come from West Africa, but most from Central Africa and especially the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"I'd like people to get a sense of how varied the aesthetic traditions are as well as how varied the functions of the objects may be," says Bridges, who speaks no African languages but who has traveled to Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Can one appreciate the works as a non-specialist?
"I think so," Bridges says. "Each piece is visually striking in its own right, so even people who don't know anything about African art can appreciate them for their visual value. But I would like them to have an understanding of their uses and their cultural context -- that a mask is used in performing ceremonies, for example."
Such uses, she adds, are explained in the labels she wrote.
Bridges, who hopes to finish her doctorate by 2007, agrees with Panczenko about the academic mission of the museum.
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