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Re-examining perception: Boston's MFA displays its African and Pacific art

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Avenue of the Arts
465 Huntington Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts 02115-5523


By Chris Bergeron Sunday, May 9, 2004 found at:


BOSTON -- Sitting on a small stool, art student Crystal Furley carefully sketched a wooden statue of a mother cradling her child, carved more than a century ago by an unknown artist in Nigeria. 

"I really like the way the carver created light and dark shadings on their faces," said the 22-year-old art major at the Massachusetts College of Art. "It tells me something about a place lots of people aren't familiar with and don't think about." 

But some visitors, like Ken Josephson, passed through the galleries of art from Africa and the Pacific at the Museum of Fine Arts, looking puzzled. With his two young children in tow, the software engineer from Rochester walked by cases of works from Mali, the Congo, Tanzania and Papua/New Guinea. 

Together, they looked briefly at a 2-foot-tall Congolese "power figure" covered in white pigment with dozens of nails protruding from its torso and a mirror impacted into its belly. 

"I don't know what to make of them," Josephson explained. "They look sort of interesting. But they're so different from what I'm used to looking at. I can't explain them to my children." 

Misunderstanding should soon be replaced by a greater appreciation for arts from Africa and Oceania thanks to a generous gift from two longtime collectors. 

Two galleries at the MFA have been renovated to display more than 80 extraordinary works donated by William E. Teel and his late wife, Bertha L. Teel, who spent 50 years amassing one of the region's great collections. 

The new galleries are located on the first floor between the West Wing and Lower Rotunda. 

The MFA has appointed scholar and author Christaud M. Geary as its first full-time curator for African and Oceanic Art. 

Under her direction, the first exhibit in the reinstalled galleries, "Arts of Africa and Oceania," offers a revelatory encounter with the art and people who made it from two vast but sadly misunderstood regions. 

Geary urged visitors to set aside preconceptions of beauty and design to enjoy African and Pacific art in their own rich and varied traditions. 

"I see this exhibit as an important step for changing public perception of these regions and the art produced there," said Geary recently."We hope to raise public awareness by showing wonderful works of art." 

Through accessible wallthat establishes a cultural con for the objects, the exhibit makes a very strong case for the enduring greatness of African art. 

While art originated in Africa over 5,000 years ago, most pieces in the current exhibit were made in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since most artists created in wood, many of their works have been lost to decay. 

Visitors can enjoy this exhibit without a special familiarity with African or Pacific history. The wallaccompanying each object explains its role and design in an accessible, straightforward way. 

For example, a fierce wooden mask with protuberant facial features was worn in Gabon during ceremonies to invoke help from a spirit that restored social order. 

Born in Germany, Geary has traveled widely in Africa, performing field research in the Cameroons, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa. She served 13 years as curator of the photographic archives of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute. 

The current exhibit features an intriguing range of handcrafted masks, human figures, and religious and ceremonial objects, mostly made in West and Central Africa during the last 200 years. 

Representing a vast geographical and cultural range, the Oceanic Gallery includes 30 fascinating objects from island societies as diverse as Hawaii, Guam, the Easter Islands, the Marquesas and New Caledonia. 

For Geary, the objects in the expanded galleries offer visitors fresh opportunities to appreciate art that does not exemplify familiar Western ideals of form and beauty. 

"People should come prepared to be open to different kinds of aesthetics and different ways of representing humans," she said. "The artists of Africa based their work on different conventions than those associated with Western art." 

By arranging the objects thematically, the exhibit examines several aspects of African life: art of the masquerade; arts of governance; arts and the ancestors; and animals in African art. 

Like Western art, the works of African and Pacific artists spring from a complex culture that, sadly, remains alien to many visitors. 

As Geary's wallexplains, the works in the exhibit often "expressed religious beliefs and cultural ideals" that were important parts of many Africans' lives. 

While knowing the cultural con adds to our understanding of art, she pointed out modern viewers can enjoy Medieval or Renaissance paintings without specialized knowledge of the figures portrayed in them. 

Since Western explorers first brought African art back to Europe, the public often regarded it through the lens of racial stereotypes or cultural bias. 

African objects were often described as "primitive" or "native art" despite their craft and sophistication. 

Geary said the exhibit should help redefine popular ideas of the artist's role in African society. 

Some of the "idealized" portraits on display were commissioned by powerful religious or secular leaders, she said. 

The exhibits, Geary said, debunk several popular misconceptions about African art, namely that the makers are not known. 

She's especially excited about a section recognizing several famous Yoruba artists from Nigeria, Olowe of Ise (1875-1938) and Arowogun of Osi-Ilorin. 

A striking 4 1/2-foot-tall figural headdress by Olowe displays remarkable detail and individuality. 

"The exhibit addresses several myths about sub-Saharan art, namely that is has no history and there aren't any named artists," she said. 

Geary said the pieces on display deflate the mistaken view that Africans predominantly lived in "tribes" that produced distinct art because they were isolated from other groups. 

"There was always cross-fertilization in arts and culture. Artists integrated new materials, like beads and glass, into their work," she said. "There was no single cultural scene (in Africa) that determined how works looked. There was a creative openness that didn't exist in the West." 

This exhibit should help that art and those artists find a new audience. 

General information 

A book, "Art of the Senses: African Masterpieces from the Teel Collection," containing an essay by Geary, includes more than 100 color illustrations. It costs $50 at the MFA bookstore, online at or by calling 617-369-3575. 

A new group has been formed, Friends of African and Oceanic Art, to build continuing interest in the arts of Africa and the Pacific. For information, call Kyla Hygysician at 617-369-3222. 

Open seven days a week, the MFA's hours are: Monday and Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. (Thursday and Friday, after 5 p.m., only the West Wing is open); Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. 

General admission (which includes two visits in a 30-day period) is $15 for adults, $13 for senior citizens and students 18 and above, and free for children 17 and under when school is not in session. 

( For general visitor information, call 617-267-9300 To read more about the African art collection,  )

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