A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
African Creativity, More About the Momentary Than the Monumental
THIS EXHIBITION IS NOW ON VIEW IN The Texas San Antonio Museum of Art
Like many anthologies, though, this one is about browsing, rather than about a productive sorting and synthesizing of information. And given the radical thinking coming out of the still-marginalized field of African art history, and the many stories still waiting to be told, it can't help seeming, despite its manifold beauties, like a missed opportunity to shape and present fresh research.
My visit coincided with an event at which such research was being presented: a stimulating symposium of young scholars of African art, organized by Susan Vogel at Columbia University, where she teaches. None of the speakers focused on the kind of "classical" sculpture in the collection. Several argued against the standard academic equation of art and objects, and specifically the equation of African art with a canon of museum-vetted sculptures.
Instead, they talked about African art as mutable, ephemeral, time-based, kinetic, contingent and defined by fluid situations rather than by single, solid things. Equivalents of contemporary Western forms like conceptual art, process art, performance art, installation art, body art and sound art have been practiced in Africa for centuries.
And any comprehensive study of African art is, by necessity, multidisciplinary, with art historians and anthropologists heading a list that also includes musicologists, folklorists, linguists, dance historians, architectural historians and scholars of religion, aesthetics, ethnology and philosophy.
Visions of this fusion were dancing in my head as I traveled from Columbia to the Museum for African Art. So I wasn't surprised that the word exciting repeatedly came to mind as I walked through a show for which I'd had only mild expectations. Piece after piece, no matter how familiar the form, made me slow my pace. Every encounter was a contact high. I wasn't seeing just objects. I was seeing a network of ideas.
Heightened receptivity is not, I hasten to say, a prerequisite for appreciating a show that has, on its own terms, much to offer. The New Orleans museum's African collection is a fine and representative one, as befits a city with a 70 percent African-American population. (The museum is in the process of expanding its African galleries, which is why the collection is on the road.)
And the curator, Frank Herreman, former deputy director of exhibitions at the Museum for African Art, has chosen well, from a Kota reliquary guardian figure (a modernist icon) and a Ciwara crest mask (its form now a logo for an African airline) to pieces notable for their rarity.
Among these is an elegant wooden door carved by a Baule artist from Ivory Coast with a low-relief image of a large fish devouring a smaller one, a cautionary emblem of misused power. Immaculately preserved, the door must stand in for a whole range of Baule architectural art that had ceased production by the time of Ivorian independence in 1960.
The artist's name we don't know. And until fairly recently, anonymity was assumed to be standard in African art. Not necessarily so. In many cultures, individual artists were and are revered; sometimes their fame was widespread. The Yoruba court sculptor Olowe of Ise (circa 1875-1938) is one of the best known in the West, and New Orleans has a splendid example of his work: a palace veranda post carved in the form of an armed and mounted warrior.
It is one of the collection's most accessible sculptures, both because of its unmysterious function, documented in 1930 photographs, and a naturalistic style comparable to some in the West. And indeed, cross-cultural links, and specifically trans-Atlantic links, crop up throughout the show.
One may be detected in a memorial staff attributed to the 19th-century Yoruba-born artist Akati Akpele Kendo. It is crowned by a miniature vignette in wrought iron of a top-hatted court official surrounded by twisty-looking animals and a table arrayed with liquor jars. If you wanted to locate stylistic sources for drawings by the African-American artist Bill Traylor (1854-1947), you might start here.
And an elaborate Yoruba masquerade costume on display, about halfway into the show, anticipates the strutting, swooping exhibitionism of New Orleans Mardi Gras attire. Made from layers of boldly patterned textiles and panels of bright beadwork, the costume, when danced, was meant to embody an ancestral spirit.
"When danced" is an important qualification. As festive as it looks in the museum, in an African context the costume needed more than good lighting to come to life. It needed a body, movement, drums, songs and a responsive crowd that believed in art's power to bridge the divine and human worlds and to turn flesh into spirit, and back again. Without all or some of this, it was just cloth and beads, a fragment of something bigger waiting to happen.
Sculptures come with comparable requirements. A wooden power figure, or nkisi, from Congo has a meticulously carved, sensationally expressive head but a sketchy, genderless block of a body. In fact, once the figure was in use, the body would have been concealed under layers of materials - animal skins, feathers, leaves - applied to ignite the object's spiritual potential, an activation further intensified through singing and praying.
The final product would be a kind of psychic smart bomb, lethal to evil. But in the museum, stripped of vivifying substances, deprived of songs, prayers and touch, it is not that. It's an intriguing sculpture, but it is also, to quote the art historian Wyatt MacGaffey in the show's catalog, "powerless, a relic of another time, another place, another way of life."
These realities bring us to the conceptual dimension of African art, which, the symposium suggested, is its primary one. It is certainly the dimension least compatible with object-based art history. That discipline has little room for the art of body painting, as described by Sarah Adams; or for the abstract Yoruba assemblages, all gesture and placement, described by David T. Doris; or for the transfer of figurative traditions from sculpture to photographs to the Internet, as described by Till F÷rster.
None of this material has obvious museum or market potential. Its ephemeral quality even reinforces a common perception that apart from a century or two of "tribal" sculpture, Africa lacks any significant body of preservable, displayable art. So, by extension, it lacks an art history.
In this argument, much hinges on how you describe history and art. At the Columbia symposium, Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie seemed to speak for at least some of his colleagues when he talked of art history not as a fixed body of objects but as an ever-shifting system of knowledge embodied in different forms in different ways at different times. Some forms stay the same but change their meanings; others become obsolete so that new forms can be invented, a dynamic seriously impeded by the creation of inviolable canons of objects and values.
None of these ideas, abstract as they may sound, should be difficult for Western audiences to grasp. Western art in the 20th century produced just two great, self-challenging innovations. In the first half of the century, it was abstraction (minimalism was one of several offshoots), which freed art from images and made it a universe unto itself. The great invention of the second half was conceptualism. It freed art from forms and made it a way of existing in the world.
Africa fully absorbed its own versions of all of this well before the 20th century. The West, by contrast, has never fully absorbed or been fully comfortable with any of it. That's why our major art museums and our major art history departments, when they do turn their attention to African art, often don't know what they are looking at, or want to know. (For good reason. To apply the kind of thinking emerging from African art to Western art, as should be happening, would change art history as we know it.)
But certain scholars do know what they are looking at. So do certain museums. And to them it is thrilling, utterly. The Museum for African Art is one of those museums. And even when an exhibition is conceptually conservative, like this one, the material is choice, and the atmosphere bracing and expansive. So pay a visit. Browse a marvelous African collection. And start looking hard at what you don't see.
"Resonance From the Past: African Sculpture From the New Orleans Museum of Art" is at the Museum for African Art, 36-01 43rd Avenue, Long Island City, Queens, (718)784-7700, through May 29, 2005.
It travels to the San Antonio Museum of Art (June 25 to Oct. 2); Arkansas Art Center (Jan. 20 to April 16, 2006); the Albuquerque Museum (May 14 to Aug. 13, 2006); and the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution (Oct. 5, 2006 to Jan. 28, 2007).
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