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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Africa Bold New-York

Africa in broad sweeps and bold brushstrokes 

Bakassi. Chelsea. Ecomog. Dark Sailor. Mac Lord. Nixson. King Solomon. Poncho Picolo. Top Squad. What sounds like an international hip-hop roll call is a list of brand-name liquors found in Nsukka, a city in Nigeria. 

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By Holland Cotter The New York Times, IHT FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2005 

NEW YORK 

The same names appear, over and over, in a series of fantastic new sculptures by El Anatsui, who lives in Nsukka.

The sculptures, on view in two New York galleries, are made from thousands of crushed aluminum bottle caps and seals stitched together with copper wire. The results are supple, fabriclike hangings that look like a cross between kente cloth, abstract paintings and magic carpets.

Symbolically, there is a lot of Africa in them. There is a past imbedded, like DNA, in traditional patterns and forms. A cosmopolitan present, modern and postmodern, unlike any other present. And an adamantly idealistic vision of the future, even in the face of recurrent catastrophe, of which artists like Anatsui are all too well aware.

And thanks to art historians, dealers and curators, we are becoming aware of these artists, and of the Africa they are helping to shape.

Western museum collections of African material are proliferating. The under-known art of East and South Africa is being studied. "Classical" African art is keeping company with contemporary work, and the links acknowledged.

Recently, I made a sweep through several African art exhibitions, large and small, in New York, or within a day trip's distance from it. The shows share no theme. The work is too diverse for that, the ideas too complex and volatile. There are too many Africas to allow any easy synthesis. This has always been so, but it's getting clearer now.

NEWARK MUSEUM 

My survey began with a visit to "Power Dressing: Men's Fashion and Prestige in Africa" at the Newark Museum in New Jersey, a lucky choice. As conceived by the museum's young curator of African art, Christa Clarke, it is what a show should be: coherent, stylish and surprising. And it gets moving in just the right way: with a couple of showstoppers.

One is a Hausa "robe of honor" from Nigeria, made of white cotton damask with Islamic symbols embroidered in spinach-green. The other is a marvelous Yoruba chief's robe that follows the Hausa model, but adds optical bounce and different ethnic, religious and political meanings.

Most of the work in the show deals with politics: the politics of appearance, of looking good, whatever that might mean. The loose, roomy Nigerian robes make bulk chic. They give their wearers a visual heft that spells macho to many cultures - though not to the Dinka herdsmen of southern Sudan. Dinka men dress light, in sheer, tight beaded corsets and little else, precisely to show off their lithe figures.

And while material muchness can be an indicator of high status and wealth, the show's single most spectacular piece, a South African rickshaw driver's costume, comes from the lower end of the social spectrum. With its towering, mirrored superstructure, this is fashion as look-at-me advertising, yet it encodes references to Zulu history, and its elaborate beadwork speaks of a woman's skilled hand.

AXIS GALLERY 

The power of female creativity courses through a small show of South African garments at the Axis Gallery in New York. All but one piece was made by and for women of the Mfengu cultural group. Of several monochromatic skirts, some are white or beige-gray, and one is dyed a dusky ochre, a color associated with the earth, fertility and menstrual blood. In every case, the surfaces are ornamented with lines of beadwork, as fine and taut as compass needles. The minimalist painter Agnes Martin would have adored the elegant probity of this work and its message of strength in restraint.

MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON 

Self-assertion, by contrast, is the dynamic in "West African Gold: Akan Regalia From the Glassell Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gold work from Ghana was renowned in Europe in the 15th century and is still the source of an opulent court art. Ashanti kings wear gold-ornamented sandals and starburst finger rings the size of sea anemones. Royal officials carry gilded staffs crowned with carved human and animal figures.

The carvings illustrate moral proverbs. In some cases, the meaning is transparent: A tableau of a man giving another man a boost up a tree extols the virtue of cooperation. Other images are harder to parse and some feel distinctly unbenign. Repeated images of gilded rifles, swords and cartridge belts, for example, suggest a militaristic concept of kingship.

If so, the Ashanti are hardly unique. Stroll through the European galleries at the Met, or check out statues in Washington and you get the same message. It's good to be alert to such messages; awareness retrains and sharpens the eye. The fact is, art's potency intensifies rather than diminishes once you leave unquestioning reliance on the pleasure principle behind, get beyond gold's sight-impairing glow.

AFRICAN ART MUSEUM 

Alertness of a somewhat different kind is the subtext of "The Discerning Eye: African Art From the Collection of Carl and Wilma Zabel" at the African Art Museum of the S.M.A. Fathers in Tenafly, New Jersey. The "eye" here is the shared vision of two collectors who chose to lavish their attention on a type of art often overlooked or dismissed, namely East African sculpture. Roughly half the show is made up of carvings from Kenya and Tanzania. Some depart audaciously from preconceived standards of sculptural beauty. In doing do, they automatically extend the way beauty can be defined and experienced.

WORLD FINANCIAL CENTER 

Speaking of preconceptions, I came to "Lasting Foundations: The Art of Architecture in Africa," organized by the Museum for African Art at the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan, with misgivings about how it would come off in the complex's awkwardly configured Courtyard Gallery. My doubts were needless. As organized by Enid Schildkrout, the museum's chief curator, the show looks great.

Like most architectural exhibitions, it uses lots of photographs and texts. But more than many, it also incorporates objects: Dogon door locks from Mali, carved Igbo doors from Nigeria, Swahili window frames rich with Indian and Islamic motifs from Kenya. As an inspired bonus, Schildkrout includes photographs by contemporary African artists who work with architectural imagery.

The most evocative element of all, though, is an excerpt from Susan Vogel's film "Living Memory: Six Sketches of Mali Today." The clip documents the annual replastering of the great Mosque of Djenne, the largest adobe building in the world. Thousands of people show up for this event.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART

Love is, I assume, a motivation behind the collecting efforts of Jean Pigozzi, a Swiss-based entrepreneur who, with the help of the French curator Andre Magnin, has amassed large holdings in contemporary African work.

Magnin was part of the team responsible for "Magicians of the Earth" in Paris in the late 1980s, an exhibition faulted for perpetuating a primitivistic stereotype of African artists as exotic shamans rather than as full participants in international culture. The same complaint has been leveled at the Pigozzi collection, a chunk of which has traveled to Washington from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Pigozzi insists that he is only interested in "authentic" new African art, which he defines as art made by self-taught artists who rarely, if ever, leave home. The notion is silly at best, racist at worst. Still, he has supported some wonderful artists, Frederic Bruly Bouabre, Seydou Keita, Bodys Isek Kingelez and Cheri Samba among them.

Samba was one of the first African artists to gain international success in the 1980s; and his witty, socially engaged, highly photogenic work - essentially an extended history-painting project - looks fresh in any context.

The show itself, though, feels shopworn. I wish the museum had put together something of its own; say, a miniversion of "Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent," seen in London last spring.

Alternatively, it might have used the presence of the Pigozzi material to dig critically into the issues the collection raises, about how African art is defined, and who has the power to control the definitions.

Instead, a wan collection showcase has been dutifully installed and left to sit there. 

SKOTO GALLERY AND CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ART GALLERY 

El Anatsui is not in the Washington show, but he makes a terrific impression in his joint New York appearance at the Skoto Gallery in Chelsea and at the Contemporary African Art Gallery on the Upper West Side. Each space has fine examples of his familiar carved wood wall sculptures; those uptown are especially good. But the wire-stitched aluminum pieces are the big news.

Draped and bunched against the wall, each is as buoyant and pliant as cloth. Indeed, Anatsui brought both shows to New York in suitcases.

And he has commented on some of the ideas behind the series. It is a gesture, ambivalent in its motivation, of giving back to the West some of the things - intoxicants, languages, recycled junk - that the West gave to Africa.

But it is also about Africa itself, conceived, like kente cloth, as a pieced-together but continuous fabric. In African tradition, kente is a record of histories and the cloth of kings. In Anatsui's hands, it is a shining, new kind of cloth, permeable but indestructible. It reflects an African essence of three interchangeable parts always in motion: memory, reality, determination.

NEW YORK Bakassi. Chelsea. Ecomog. Dark Sailor. Mac Lord. Nixson. King Solomon. Poncho Picolo. Top Squad. What sounds like an international hip-hop roll call is a list of brand-name liquors found in Nsukka, a city in Nigeria. The same names appear, over and over, in a series of fantastic new sculptures by El Anatsui, who lives in Nsukka.

The sculptures, on view in two New York galleries, are made from thousands of crushed aluminum bottle caps and seals stitched together with copper wire. The results are supple, fabriclike hangings that look like a cross between kente cloth, abstract paintings and magic carpets.

Symbolically, there is a lot of Africa in them. There is a past imbedded, like DNA, in traditional patterns and forms. A cosmopolitan present, modern and postmodern, unlike any other present. And an adamantly idealistic vision of the future, even in the face of recurrent catastrophe, of which artists like Anatsui are all too well aware.

And thanks to art historians, dealers and curators, we are becoming aware of these artists, and of the Africa they are helping to shape.

Western museum collections of African material are proliferating. The under-known art of East and South Africa is being studied. "Classical" African art is keeping company with contemporary work, and the links acknowledged.

Recently, I made a sweep through several African art exhibitions, large and small, in New York, or within a day trip's distance from it. The shows share no theme. The work is too diverse for that, the ideas too complex and volatile. There are too many Africas to allow any easy synthesis. This has always been so, but it's getting clearer now.

 

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The Tribal Arts of Africa

The Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart

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