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Taking up African arms

Historical society's weapons exhibit exciting, but should it be in another venue?

It's common knowledge that Africa has produced some of the most compelling art on the planet. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were both decisively influenced by African masks, headdresses and fetishes. Collectors everywhere have hungered after Benin brass portraits of powerful rulers.

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Friday, October 22, 2004 by Steven Litt Plain Dealer Art Critic 

 Ethiopian Christians have created beautiful icons that blend Byzantine influences with indigenous currents. Countless exhibitions have explored these connections in recent decades. This year, however, an African surprise has emerged in Cleveland. Since April, the Western Reserve Historical Society quietly has been showing a dramatic group of traditional African weapons made of forged iron. The show is a genuine sleeper that received less publicity than it deserved. Even so, the fact that it's at the historical society at all raises intriguing questions about that institution's recent policies and overall mission. 

Before the introduction of modern firearms in the 19th century, African peoples created elaborate swords, daggers and "throwing knives" to wreak havoc on the battleground and to embody civic and sacred power. And yet, even though such weapons played an important role in many sub-Saharan societies, they have not been studied or exhibited extensively in the United States. The weaponry on view at the historical society, most of which comes from the private collection of Donna and Robert Jackson of Shaker Heights, is scary, beautiful and utterly fascinating. It brings to mind the permanent display of medieval weaponry in the Armor Court of the Cleveland Museum of Art, or the exquisitely bejeweled daggers and swords in the art museum's recent exhibition on Mughal treasures from the al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait. What makes the African arms fresh and exciting is the sheer inventiveness and sculptural brilliance of their shapes. Some have long, tapering blades, as might be expected. But many feature claws, spiky hooks or sinewy S-curves of cold metal incised with delicate filigreed patterns. A throwing knife from the Zande people of Sudan has shapes that evoke a crescent moon, the wing of a bird and a phallus in profile, complete with testicle. A ceremonial sword from the Ngombe or Doko people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo features a long tapering blade with two pincer like arms extending from the tip. Killing never looked so good. Other objects in the show were intended not to commit mayhem, but to communicate power and authority with shapes even more elaborate than those of the weapons. Compelling examples of African weapons

It's common knowledge that Africa has produced some of the most compelling art on the planet.

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were both decisively influenced by African masks, headdresses and fetishes. Collectors everywhere have hungered after Benin brass portraits of powerful rulers. Ethiopian Christians have created beautiful icons that blend Byzantine influences with indigenous currents. Countless exhibitions have explored these connections in recent decades.

This year, however, an African surprise has emerged in Cleveland. Since April, the Western Reserve Historical Society quietly has been showing a dramatic group of traditional African weapons made of forged iron.

The show is a genuine sleeper that received less publicity than it deserved. Even so, the fact that it's at the historical society at all raises intriguing questions about that institution's recent policies and overall mission.

Before the introduction of modern firearms in the 19th century, African peoples created elaborate swords, daggers and "throwing knives" to wreak havoc on the battleground and to embody civic and sacred power. And yet, even though such weapons played an important role in many sub-Saharan societies, they have not been studied or exhibited extensively in the United States.

The weaponry on view at the historical society, most of which comes from the private collection of Donna and Robert Jackson of Shaker Heights, is scary, beautiful and utterly fascinating. It brings to mind the permanent display of medieval weaponry in the Armor Court of the Cleveland Museum of Art, or the exquisitely bejeweled daggers and swords in the art museum's recent exhibition on Mughal treasures from the al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait.

What makes the African arms fresh and exciting is the sheer inventiveness and sculptural brilliance of their shapes. Some have long, tapering blades, as might be expected. But many feature claws, spiky hooks or sinewy S-curves of cold metal incised with delicate filigreed patterns.

A throwing knife from the Zande people of Sudan has shapes that evoke a crescent moon, the wing of a bird and a phallus in profile, complete with testicle. A ceremonial sword from the Ngombe or Doko people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo features a long tapering blade with two pincerlike arms extending from the tip.

Killing never looked so good.

Other objects in the show were intended not to commit mayhem, but to communicate power and authority with shapes even more elaborate than those of the weapons.

Compelling examples of African weapons 

Three examples from the Congo are particularly compelling. A prestige scepter from the Ekonda people unfurls itself in space like a piece of curlicued calligraphy. A prestige knife from the Mangbetu people features two wing like blades that look like the profiles of birds in flight. A ceremonial sword from the Lia people traces a long S-curve with jagged triangular protrusions and a curled, claw like spike at the tip.

Organized by Marianne Berardi, an independent scholar and former director of the Cleveland Artists Foundation, the show includes more than 40 items from the Jackson collection. Also on view are two dozen rarely exhibited African weapons from the Cleveland Museum of Art and a separate display case of spears and knives collected in 1927 and 1928 by Paul Travis, a Cleveland artist whose African travels heavily influenced his own work.

What's clear from a comparison of the different parts of the exhibition is that the Jackson collection is the most im pressive. The blades from the art museum are generally simpler, smaller and less elaborate - and the Travis material is less a collection than a cache of souvenirs.

It's also clear that it's very weird to see the Jackson collection at the Western Reserve Historical Society, as opposed to the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The African arms have nothing to do with Western Reserve history, aside from their having been collected by a couple who live here.

For several years, the historical society has been selling objects from its collection that it considers unrelated to its core focus on the history of Northeast Ohio. These sales include a collection of Napoleonic-era memorabilia and regalia that used to be displayed in the very gallery that now houses the Jackson collection. This makes it all the more strange to see the African arms in the same space.

Robert Jackson, a trustee of the historical society, said he originally declined when curators approached him about lending his collection. He said he feared that it would look as if he was exercising undue influence as a trustee.

But Tamera Brown, director of audience development at the historical society, said the organization wanted to use the Jackson collection to launch a new series of annual exhibitions on collectors of all kinds in Northeast Ohio.

This is confusing. The historical society is suddenly eager to exhibit the kinds of eclectic collections that only recently it was selling.

Comparisons,connections needed 

It is certainly better to see the Jackson collection of African arms at the historical society than not at all. But it would have made more sense to see the exhibit at the art museum, amid other African objects, so that comparisons and connections could be made.

Jackson said that while he has discussed exhibiting the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art in recent years, nothing came of those discussions. Charles Venable, the art museum's deputy director for collections and public programs, said he was unaware of any contacts with Jackson on the subject. Constantine Petridis, the art museum's curator of African art, was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

Aside from the strangeness of its location, the exhibition raises tantalizing questions. One is how best to view the weapons. The Jacksons say that they view the African weapons as a kind of sculpture, and that they see them strictly from an aesthetic viewpoint.

Such perspectives have been criticized by scholars as being aligned with a colonial mind- set, which denies the fundamental cultural meanings embodied by African art.

The exhibition's catalog, written by Berardi, attempts to unearth details about how the objects were originally used and regarded in their own cultures. Berardi is not an African specialist, but, as a well- trained art historian, she is perfectly aware of the controversies over how African art should be interpreted.

She said she was very much aware that it's unclear how many of the African arms and ceremonial weapons entered European collections originally. In many cases, the ownership histories, or provenances, are not known, although she said it's likely many pieces were acquired by Belgian or French missionaries or traders in the 19th century.

However, she said, "It's hard to distinguish between what was booty and what was traded fairly."

Berardi said her work on the Jackson collection "gave me a feeling for how very, very young the African field is. There's a lot of work to be done on it still."

The exhibit at the historical society certainly has advanced that cause. But African art is a subject that might have been explored in greater depth and with greater meaning in an institution better suited to the task.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:slitt@plaind.com, 216-999-4136 © 2004 The Plain Dealer.

read also Standing on Ceremony: Traditional African Arms from the Donna and Robert Jackson Collection and the Cleveland Museum of Art

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