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

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Albuquerque Museum of Art and History

Albuquerque lures its first major exhibit of African art

Albuquerque museum
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SEE THE WORK

What: "Resonance from the Past: African Sculpture from the New Orleans Museum of Art."

Where: Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, 2000 Mountain Road N.W.

When: Runs through Aug. 13, 2006 . Museum hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; closed Mondays.

How much: $4 for adults; $2 for seniors; $1 for children 4-12; free for children 3 and under.

Contact: Call 243-7255 or go to www.cabq.gov/museum.

also : TWO-WEEK AFRICAN ARTS TEACHERS' INSTITUTE
June 5 - June 16, 2006

albuberque museum -new orleans"Veranda Post: Opo Ile" is a carved wood column, tinted in polychrome, by Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise. Olowe, who died in 1938, was a virtuoso carver who produced architectural sculptures, vessels, masks and drums for the Yoruba aristocracy and priesthood in Nigeria. (Albuquerque Museum of Art and History)

Albuquerque's first major exhibit of African sculptures, masks, ceramics and textiles shows how a culture's creations go to the core of its being

By Nancy Salem found at  Tribune Visual Arts Reviewer May 19, 2006

Art is different things to different people.

In the Western world, art is rooted in aesthetics.

In Africa, it's about purpose.

"African art is not like Western art," says William Fagaly, curator of the African collection at the New Orleans Museum of Art. "It's not art for art's sake."

African sculptures, masks, ceramics and textiles are created for specific uses and have a social context and complex meaning. They function as objects of prestige, religion, ritual, initiation or social control. Each use is unique to the society in which it is made.

"These are cultural objects," says Chris Steiner, curator of education at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. "Here we tend to put art aside, on the wall, and just look at it. There it's a part of life."

And it's definitely art.

That's apparent in a brilliant collection of African artwork on display at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. The exhibition, "Resonance from the Past: African Sculpture from the New Orleans Museum of Art," was organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, culled from one of the country's finest collections.

The museum in New Orleans, often called "America's most African city," received its first piece of African art in 1953 - a rare 18th century Benin bronze "Head of an Oba," from an anonymous donor - and, under the direction of longtime curator Fagaly, the museum has built a seminal collection. A spectacular piece of it, 140 works, was bequeathed in 1977 by famed collector Victor Kiam.

Ninety-four pieces are part of the show, which opened last year in New York and then traveled to San Antonio and Little Rock, Ark. After leaving Albuquerque, it moves to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

It's the first major show of African art in New Mexico, and a true collaboration, years in the making. The Albuquerque Museum worked with the Albuquerque chapter of the Links Inc. and the University of New Mexico to bring the show to the city. Along with the Albuquerque Public Schools, the museum creates ongoing educational programs, including an African art teachers' institute, regional teachers' workshops and a statewide traveling exhibit.

"We formed a committee to emphasize education and develop programs," Steiner said. "We want artists out in the schools. We want to bring African art to the community."

The first push came from the Links, an international women's volunteer service group with a mostly black membership dedicated to cultural diversity and the well-being of people of African descent. Group members from the Albuquerque chapter met with Jim Moore, then the museum's director, in 2002 about the possibility of an African art exhibition. They also approached Shiame Okunor, who was director of the black studies program at UNM.

"We had started a program called `Crossing Cultural Bridges' to help expose young people in the greater Albuquerque area to various cultures," said Jean Harris, chairwoman of youth services for the Albuquerque Links chapter. "We wanted to prepare them to function in a global workplace. We observed that many young people knew something about their own culture but not about others."

"Face Mask: Mbuyu," by the Pende peoples in the Republic of Congo, is made of wood, fibers, pigment and raffia. The faces of Pende masks, used in masquerades, reveal theories of physiognomy and gender that contrast the calm feminine with the brash masculine. The Pende believe physiognomy reflects inner character and spirit. (Albuquerque Museum of Art and History)

Programs were developed on Hispanic, American Indian and Jewish cultures. When it came time for a black segment, the options were limited, and Moore was contacted.

"We think the arts have a big impact on learning and development," Harris said. "The museum was very receptive."

Moore learned that curator Frank Herreman of the African museum in New York was putting together the New Orleans show and got Albuquerque on the list of cities.

It's a fascinating glimpse into life in Africa, a continent of more than 50 countries and 1,000 tribal groups.

The show features an array of artwork, mostly from western and central sub-Saharan Africa, including masks, figurative sculpture, musical instruments, ceramics, textiles and beaded costumes.

There are many tribes represented, and each has its own style.

"A Yoruba piece won't be the same as a Bamana piece," Fagaly said. "Each tribal group has its own identifiable way of making things."

It's hard to date African art.

"Pieces done in the 17th century look like those done today," Fagaly said. "There's little change."

Most of the works in the show are from the 20th century, with a few from the 18th and 19th centuries.

What is striking about African art is its power. The pieces tend to be small, but they have a vitality linked to their cultural context. They give insight into lives. They show how art relates to culture.

It's well known that Picasso, Mirˇ and other modernist pioneers were influenced by African art. You can see that here in the visual abstraction, asymmetrical variations and symbolism.

But all that aside, African art is just plain beautiful.

"They took the time and effort to make such attractive pieces for really non-art purposes," Fagaly says. "They put a lot of effort into it."

The artists work in wood, clay, beads, fabric and metal. Most of the pieces are carved into three-dimensional forms.

The most impressive works are by the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. The Yorubas are master carvers, and many Yoruba artists are known by name, unusual in the anonymous world of African art.

The showstopper is "Veranda Post: Opo Ile," carved by Olowe of Ise, a Yoruba court artist who lived from 1885 to 1938. He is considered among the most accomplished African artists of the 20th century.

The post is large - nearly 5 feet - and was originally installed in a palace courtyard. The polychrome-tinted wood carving is highly sophisticated - visually, texturally and in composition. The post shows a warrior mounted on an ornately decorated horse, surrounded by symbolic objects. The complexity and perfection of color and form are extraordinary.

On a smaller scale, "Maternity Figure" is exquisite. A woman carries a large offering bowl. It's balanced by a child on her back and a forward sweep of skirt. The shrine sculpture, by an unknown artist, is flawlessly composed and intricately carved.

Another Yoruba masterwork, "Egungun Masquerade Dance Costume: Ekuu Egungun," is a mask and gown worn in a ritual that celebrates the spirits of departed ancestors. The colorful costume is built of disparate fabrics and adorned with metal, beads, shells and metallic thread. The impact is undeniable.

"Egungun Masquerade Dance Costume: Ekuu Egungun," was made by the Yoruba peoples in the early 20th century. The Yoruba believe the spirit of ancestors is embodied in the elaborate costume - made of cloth, metallic thread, glass beads and cowrie shells - of the masked performer Egungun. (Albuquerque Museum of Art and History)

The Yoruba collection is extensive and includes accomplished figures, bowls, staffs, sheaths, even a beaded king's tunic. Look closely at "Epa Masquerade Headdress: Elefon," an amazing piece of ceremonial art, tinted and textured with ground stone.

Other outstanding works are the eerie "Face Mask," by the Ezzamgbo Igbo peoples, made of wood, monkey fur, human hair and iron nails; "Helmet Mask: Detelumo," by the Ejagham peoples, a naturalistic triple-faced helmet sculpted from one piece of wood covered with animal skin; and the lovely, graceful "Female Figure," by the Yaka peoples.

The spare "Male Reliquary Guardian Figure: Eyima Bieri or Nlo Bieri," by the Fang peoples, will bring to mind Picasso; and "Figure of Chief-Hunter," a 19th century piece by the Chokwe peoples, can stand with the best examples of contemporary sculpture.

Fagaly studied at Indiana University under Roy Sieber, recognized as the first trained African art historian in the United States. Fagaly began collecting African art at New Orleans at a time when few U.S. art museums took "primitive" art seriously. His is a major accomplishment.

The collection shows us that African art is beautiful in the purely artistic sense; powerful in its link to culture, ritual and religion; and illuminating in its insights into the lives of its creators.

It's art of the highest order.

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