A century from now, art historians will shake their heads in disbelief at what universities were teaching circa
2005. How, they will wonder, could scholars have been so obtuse?
Entire courses devoted to that froth called French Impressionism; whole
seminars to a prolific pasticheur named Pablo Picasso, whose chief
innovation lay in mining African art for modernist gold. As for the
study of African art itself, it was relegated to the margins of the
Ken Yurkovitch/Queensborough Community College
A chief's crown, made of silver around the turn of
the 20th century.
In age, variety and beauty, art from Africa is second to none. Africa
had traditions of abstract art, performance art, installation art and
conceptual art centuries before the West ever dreamed up the names.
African art stayed vital and culture-altering as the West's avant-garde
episode withered away.
So why is African art given such scant attention circa 2005? Why are
precious opportunities to study and document it lost for lack of money,
personnel and encouragement? Future historians probably will not have
clear answers - cultural blindness is hard to explain. Charitably, they
will assume that universities did what they could with the limited
vision they had.
But some universities have a broad vision. The City University of New
York is one. Its Queensborough Community College has quietly assembled
an impressive collection of African art. A year ago, the college
inaugurated a permanent display of the collection in its campus gallery.
This summer the gallery is presenting nearly 100 privately owned
sculptures in an exhibition titled "Artists and Patrons in
Traditional African Cultures: African Sculpture From the Gary Schulze
Mr. Schulze's interest in African art began when he was in the Peace
Corps in Sierra Leone in the early 1960's, and much of the work in the
show comes from there and a few other West Africa countries. Yet because
African culture is a fluid, manifold, cross-pollinating phenomenon, the
stylistic range of the objects on view is broad and the chronological
span wide, from the second millennium B.C. almost to the present.
Giving shape to such diversity isn't easy. The curator, Donna
Page, an adjunct instructor in the department of art and photography at
Queensborough, tackles the job by adopting patronage as a theme and
sorting out 60 objects under categories of royal patronage, religious
patronage and what might be called civic patronage. In reality,
distinctions are not so neat, but the scheme works here, giving the show
and Mr. Schulze's collection a graspable logic.
The collection, despite unevenness, has pieces of exceptional
interest, even in the context of a city with major institutional
holdings of African material at the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums.
The show begins with one such work, an exquisite wooden figure of a
woman carved in the mid-19th century by a Temne artist in Sierra Leone.
With her crested coiffure, long neck carved in coils, and abdomen
lightly marked with beautifying scars, she is a study in orderly
patterning. Her lithe figure and clear face adhere to a feminine ideal
of both form and character. The way she touches her breasts, as if in a
gesture of offering, speaks of a generosity of spirit that is the truest
meaning of fertility.
Ms. Page notes in the slender exhibition catalog that this sculpture and a
similar one in the British Museum are among nearly a dozen thought to have
been carved by the same artist, his or her name unrecorded.
The sweeping assumption that anonymity is a condition natural to African
art is wrong. The names of important artists were, in fact, well known in
their day, except to colonial collectors who either didn't understand local
languages, or who, as they carried off a sculpture, simply didn't ask,
"By the way, who made this?"
The fact that Mr. Schulze, when in Africa, not only asked the question but
spoke with the artist himself gives one of the show's several beautiful,
gleaming Sande Society masks a sense of personal magnetism. The piece was
carved by Kondeh Bundu, a Mende artist in Sierra Leone, whom the collector
photographed and interviewed. The interview, recorded in 1962 and included in
the catalog, suggests that this "unanonymous" artist well knew his
own worth and his fame.
When Mr. Schulze handed him an ancient stone carving from the collection of
the Sierra Leone national museum for an inspection, the artist accepted the
piece as a gift. "Tell the government that your friend, Kondeh, the carver,
wanted it. Tell the prime minister that Kondeh Bundu of Waiama wants to keep
In fact, Mr. Schulze himself collected a good amount of similar
archaeological material, and Ms. Page has installed a sampling on the gallery's
second floor. The oldest pieces are sleek terracotta heads and figures first dug
up by tin miners working near the town of Nok in Nigeria in the 1920's. Dated
between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500, they put to rest any lingering myth that African
art is without a deep history.
Then there are the small, expressive, large-eyed stone figures that farmers
in Sierra Leone came across when clearing fields. Tentatively dated from the
15th to 17th centuries, they are attributed to a group of related peoples
referred to collectively as the Sape Confederation. The confederation is thought
to have extended over parts of present-day Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, a
reminder that African national boundaries as they exist now were largely created
by Europeans to divide up their spoils.
In the end, the most reliable, organic indicators of African cultural
realities, which often represent its political realities, are to be found in its
boundary-crossing art. This fact automatically lifts the study of African art
history from the status of academic luxury item - a cosmetic extra tacked on to
keep those multiculturalists quiet - to intellectual and existential necessity.
Without it, the label "Department of Art History" is a sham.
This necessity makes both the Queensborough show and its fine and growing
permanent African display - organized by the gallery's curator, Leonard Kahan,
and its director, Faustino Quintanilla - important events as well as aesthetic
pleasures. That permanent display will be in place for years to come. With luck,
other university galleries around the country will emulate it, and their numbers
will grow, just as the global influence of Africa itself continues to increase.
Maybe, after all, art historians in 2105 will be shaking their heads in
admiration at what our century accomplished. One thing is certain: many of those
scholars of the future will be African.
Related "Artists and Patrons in Traditional African Cultures:
African Sculpture From the Gary Schulze Collection" is on view at
the art gallery of Queensborough Community College, City University of New York,
222-05 56th Avenue, Bayside, Queens, (718) 631-6396, through Sept. 30.
QCC Queens Art Gallery
Queensborough Community College
Gary Schulze opening