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

African Art books I like | Genuine African Masks

Philadelphia Museum -African Vibes

Art | African vibes pulsate through Art Museum

Videos return context and spirit to objects in exhibition.

"African Art, African Voices" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Jan. 2. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $10 general and $7 for students with I.D., visitors 62 and older, and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish on Sundays. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500, or www.philamuseum.org.

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African family - MalikUntitled (Three Girls and a Baby), 
1986, Malick Sidibé (b. 1935, Mali).

Loud noise in art museum galleries, whether ambient chatter, the murmur of recorded commentaries, or video soundtracks, usually distracts and annoys, even when the source is benign.

"African Art, African Voices" turns this observation on its head. The exhibition of nearly 200 works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art pulsates with continuous sound - singing, chanting, drumming and dancing.

The sound emanates from five video programs projected throughout the exhibition. One of them is always either in view or within hearing.

Video saturation makes this exhibition an emotionally engaging experience. The videos not only provide context by showing how various objects fit into daily life in sub-Saharan Africa, they also make those objects more accessible as art.

When European artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse "discovered" African sculpture at the turn of the 20th century, they were attracted primarily to its extraordinary formal invention. "African Art, African Voices" restores some of the meaning and magic lost when this art was objectified aesthetically, by infusing it with spirit, energy and cultural relevance.

Vue de Dos -MalikVues De Dos (View of Backs), 2001 (negative), 2004 (print), Malick Sidibé (b. 1935, Mali).

The videos and a special free audio tour featuring, with one notable exception, native African commentators allow an American audience to make necessary connections between sometimes strange objects and the societal customs and dynamics that created them.

The exhibition unfolds in two sections. The larger consists of traditional African art objects such as figural sculptures, ritual stools, masks, jewelry and textiles and costumes.

The smaller part presents contemporary art by African or African-born artists, most of which combines indigenous and Western influences. In contrast to the traditional folk genres, in which individual artists, usually anonymous, adhere to time-honored customs, the artists in the contemporary section are identified and work in individual styles.

While it seems logical to carry African art into the present, the two sections feel arbitrarily spliced together, as if the contemporary works were added to fill out the installation.

For one thing, the two parts contrast dramatically. From the spiritual vitality and deep-rooted communal emotion of the traditional section, one enters a quieter, more static and individualistic contemporary world. It's like being carried along on a powerful ocean wave that suddenly dissipates on a sandbar.

This is not to say that the contemporary art is inferior, simply that its character and the way it addresses viewers are so markedly different as to constitute a separate exhibition.


The objects in the traditional section all come from the Seattle Art Museum, where curator Pamela McClusky organized the show in the spring of 2002. Most of these objects entered the museum in 1981 as a gift from collector Katherine White, who acquired them in Africa, and the Boeing Corp.

Tyi Wara"African Voices" is not a comprehensive survey of African art, but a selective examination of a handful of the cultures most familiar to Westerners, such as the Masai of east Africa, the Kom and other peoples of the Congo region in central Africa, and the Asante and Yoruba of Ghana and Nigeria, in west Africa.

The objects are grouped according to their cultures of origin. Through brief wall texts and the audio narrative, "advisers" conversant with these cultures explain the significance of the objects, how they are made, and how they are used.

With one exception, these expositions tend to be more anthropological than aesthetic, but at least the visitor is able to appreciate the genesis of the objects and understand why they are considered to be art.

The most useful commentary comes from the only non-African among the advisers, Robert Farris Thompson, for many years the preeminent American scholar of African art.

Thompson, who teaches at Yale University, emphasizes the centrality of dance and movement in sub-Saharan art, particularly how ritual objects are often animated by being "danced" - by being treated as participants in choreographed movement.

Tyi Wara (Farming Animal) headdress, 19th to 20th century. Mali, Bamana, Segou District. On this headdress, a baby antelope is carried on the body of its mother. The smaller antelope stands upon the larger with quintessential calm.

Thompson is also eloquent on the significance of postures in African figural sculpture, prominent in the middle portion of the traditional section. His analysis of standing, sitting, kneeling, riding, supporting and balancing postures allows viewers to see beyond the often striking formal innovation into the spiritual core of these carved wooden figures.

The various postures express societal values that persist in today's African societies. For instance, carrying objects on the head with perfect balance and without showing strain expresses personal pride. It enforces an erect, regal posture that communicates self-confidence and respect for tradition.

Entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted by a scene-setting video that depicts people in various African cities and in the countryside. One is struck immediately by how many people, men as well as women, are carrying cargo on their heads, and doing so with aplomb.

The show's contextual current is so insistent that it tends to overshadow the quality of the objects, which is generally first-rate. A magnificent bronze head from the Benin kingdom sets the tone at the entrance, where, representing Africa's heritage, it counterpoints the video of modern life.

From there one moves to the lively Masai beaded necklaces, a royal throne-room display from Cameroon, and into the small figural sculptures, which include a spectacular, nail-studded talismanic figure from Congo and a "spoon woman" from Ivory Coast.

Asante objects include intricate gold jewelry, boldly patterned Kente textiles, and saddle-shaped stools that assume ritual significance in that society.

Adjacent is the most imposing object in the show, a fully costumed and masked Basinjom figure from Nigeria-Cameroon. The crocodile-faced Basinjom is a kind of shaman who neutralizes the power of witches.

The traditional section closes with several varieties of Mende, Yoruba and Dan masks from west Africa and an array of colorful masquerade costumes displayed under a video projection of dancers using them.

The vitality evident in these masquerades manifests itself even in a representation of the African way of death: a coffin carved and painted to resemble a Mercedes-Benz automobile, which opens the contemporary section. An accompanying video depicts funeral processions in which mourners carry coffins shaped like a soft-drink can, a chicken, and a giant screwdriver.

In death as in life, African culture appears to prefer celebration over solemnity, a trait that lingers in America in New Orleans funeral processions. The Mercedes coffin is a summarizing affirmation of art as an intrinsic component of daily life, the ultimate authenticator of human existence.


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Contact art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski

Read also African art, african voices. Philadelphia Museum & Philadelphia Museum  & Twins Seven Seven

Buy the exhibition catalog:
Art from Africa : Long Steps Never Broke a Back
Pamela McClusky; Paperback; Buy New: $26.56