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Boston's Newfound Fascination With African Art

the Boston Museum of Fine Arts 
465 Huntington Avenue 
(617) 267-9300. 

"A Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa" remains at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, 300 Walnut Avenue, Boston, (617) 442-8614, through Aug. 1.2003

View some African Art pieces at  the official Boston MFA site

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By HOLLAND COTTER from the New York Times

Makonde mask from the Boston Museum of Fine ArtMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
A helmet mask of the Makonde people, made of wood, hair and pigment, is among the powerful figurative sculptures and masks.

BOSTON — This city is having an African art moment. It's a serious one; it's long overdue; and I have the sense that it will last for some time. In April the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, introduced a revamped and expanded version of its gloomy old African installation — it's as if someone suddenly opened a window and let sunlight in — and hired a full-time curator to oversee it. Its inaugural celebration coincided with the opening of "A Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa," a survey of a new generation of post-apartheid artists, most exhibiting outside of Africa for the first time, at the National Center of Afro-American Artists. 

There's more. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, a short drive from here, is exhibiting "Looking Both Ways: Contemporary Artists From Africa," which had its debut at the Museum for African Art in New York but makes a much stronger impression in this space (through June 20). The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham assembled an ambitious South African show last season. And Harvard University in Cambridge is hopping with African activity, much of it generated by the art historian Suzanne Preston Blier and several gifted graduate students.

Gifted is literally the right word for the Museum of Fine Arts' African gallery and the smaller gallery of Oceanic art next to it. Nearly every object in them is a donation or a loan from the collection of William E. Teel and his wife, Bertha. Mr. Teel was in the art business: he owned University Prints, the company that produced the boxed sets of art reproductions familiar to art history students. He and his wife, who died in 1995, bought their first African pieces, a couple of masks, from a Boston dealer in the 1950's and gradually built the collection from there.

Parts of it have been exhibited locally; Ms. Blier put a chunk of it on view at Harvard in 1996. But when Malcolm Rogers, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, expressed an institutional commitment to African art, Mr. Teel made a commitment in turn, giving work in bulk and endowing a curatorship, a position held by Christraud M. Geary, formerly of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art in Washington.

Because the Teels focused on West and Central Africa, the new gallery is almost exclusively sculptural. But the variety is tremendous. And Ms. Geary has made this apparent at a glance by mixing geographically far-flung objects in many forms and styles under broad themes.

In the section devoted to the masquerade, you will find a classic example of a woman's helmet mask from Sierra Leone, its diminutive, wedge-shaped face, couched in rolls of flesh, projecting a kind of earth-grounded delicacy. In direct contrast to its stylized naturalism is a platter-shaped Teke mask from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its features seem to be scattered across the surface — eyes here, lips over there — which makes sense, considering that it represents a mercurial water spirit and was designed to be worn by cartwheeling performers. 

A bulky, nearly abstract Songe mask with block-shaped, sticking-out tubes for eyes delivers a charge of masculine authority. So does a Makonde initiation mask, but in an entirely different way. With its satiny skin, plush lips and close-cropped head of human hair, it wins through meticulous grooming rather than intimidation.

As a group, these masks offer what African art always offers, a matchless convergence of formal invention, psychological nuance and transformative drama. It is an art that allows life to feel immense but safe, cosmically complex but manageable. This is also true of the gallery's free-standing figures, which range in date from the 16th century to the 1960's (the Teke mask), in scale from grand to minute, and in expressive effect from reassuring to commanding.

The first quality suffuses a tender sculpture by the Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise (circa 1875-1938), depicting a woman with a child on her back and a bird in one hand. And both effects merge in a Kongo stone image of a mother and nursing baby, vaguely suggesting a Virgin and Child. Is it significant that the Kongo piece was the product of a matrilineal culture that had early exposure to Christianity? I would guess so. And speaking of cross-cultural exchange, aren't the gangly little iron animals and top-hatted man on a 19th-century Fon altar essentially 3-D versions of drawings that the African-American artist Bill Traylor, born in 1856 and a former slave, was doing an ocean away? My guess is yes.

Few images combine humanity and extraterrestrial regality with more panache than a Chokwe figure of a heroic chief who stands, tensed and wide-eyed, under a headdress that suggests a radar receptor scanning the sky. Mr. Teel acquired this treasure just last year. That he's still in a buying mood is welcome news for the museum and its expanding African collection, documented in a new catalog with essays by Ms. Geary, Ms. Blier and Edmund Barry Gaither.

Mr. Gaither is the director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, a nonprofit space in Roxbury, a predominantly black neighborhood. Established in 1968 as a forum for African and African-American art, which had scant mainstream visibility at the time, it has organized some 30 exhibitions of African art.

The latest, "A Decade of Democracy," is promising in its concept, which was also that of the earlier Brandeis show, but uneven in execution. It is based on the premise that contemporary South African art has been undergoing a fundamental change of direction since the end of apartheid, moving away from protest art and toward work only obliquely political or not political at all.

To judge by the 20 artists here, however, any definitive overarching trend is hard to trace. Issue-specific political art is still a major part of the picture, explicitly so in photo-based work by Lolo Veleko, Roderick Kevin Sauls and Rudzani Nemasetoni, and in Fanie Jason's AIDS pictures. An exception is Pitso Chinzima's "Archive," a curtain of newspaper obituary notices that carries portraits of the deceased but leaves the causes of death ambiguous, as if direct mention were forbidden.

Several artists focus on race and sexuality, Bongi Bengu and Pauline Mazibuko in collages about the empowerment of black women in South Africa, and Brenton Maart in abstract-looking digital photographs made of blown-up details from gay pornography. The most nuanced work on these subjects is by two artists still in their 20's: Nicholas Hlobo, a sculptor with an eye for suggestive combinations of offbeat materials (rubber inner tubes and decorative fabric tassels), and Thando Mama, whose self-examining video work has already attracted wide attention in South Africa itself.

Notable throughout the show is the contrast, which ends up feeling like a conflict, between conceptually based work and more traditional styles, modernist or otherwise. The curators — Tumelo Mosaka of the Brooklyn Museum with Sophia Ainslie, Thembinkosi Goniwe and Sipho Mdanda, all South African — clearly set out to assemble a diverse array of artists, and that's good. But their failure to make them cohere as a group — the museum's difficult gallery space is no help — puts everyone at a disadvantage. Eclecticism, which creates so rich and expansive a texture in the Museum of Fine Arts gallery, has the opposite effect here.

Luckily, the show's passionately argumentative catalog comes to the rescue. Edited by the art historian Gary Van Wyk, it is an important document of a particular time for art in South Africa and for South Africa in the larger world. Some of the writers, like the critic Colin Richards and the artist David Koloane, address the conflicted role of art in South Africa itself. Others, like Winston E. Langley and Mr. Van Wyk, draw telling comparisons between political and cultural situations there and in the United States. In doing so, they give the exhibition a weight and urgency it otherwise lacks.

Whatever the problems, it's great to find this prickly, unsettled African show in Boston, a city still racially divided. And how exhilarating it was, at the Museum of Fine Arts, to hear Solomon Murungu, a musician from Zimbabwe, play during the opening reception for the transformed African gallery. Has African music — in this case, as sparkling and fresh as flowing water — ever been heard in that august institution before? I don't know, but I expect that we will be hearing it more and more.

Boston Museum of Fine Arts

The renovated Africa and Oceania galleries are on permanent view at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, (617) 267-9300. "A Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa" remains at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, 300 Walnut Avenue, Boston, (617) 442-8614, through Aug. 1.

View some African Art pieces at  the official Boston MFA site

Peabody Essex Museum

Peabody Essex Museum
Salem, Massachusetts

East India Square, Salem, MA 01970


Official website: PEM | Peabody Essex Museum

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