A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Bill Van Siclen: African exhibit illuminates depths below the surface
300 Tower Street
01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, July 6, 2006 found at projo.com
The first thing you see as you enter "Believing Africa," a small but sparkling exhibit at the Haffenreffer Museum's satellite gallery in Providence, is a rare imina-na or "Great Mask" from the Dogon people of West Africa. Though partially damaged, it's still gorgeous -- the mask's worn and weathered surface adds to, rather than detracts from, its eerily spectral beauty.
Yet "Believing Africa," curated by a group of Brown University graduate students, isn't your typical display of African art and artifacts.
For one thing, it's not a "Greatest Hits" collection -- the kind where each object is displayed in splendid isolation, like gems in a jewelry-story window.
True, the show boasts plenty of rare and beautiful objects, ranging from the Dogon imina-na to an illuminated Koran from Somalia to a group of colorfully carved and painted caskets from Ghana. But unlike traditional museum displays, which tend to focus on mainly the objects' aesthetic qualities, "Believing Africa" provides viewers with a wealth of background and contextual material.
In practice, that means more squinting at wall labels and text panels than some viewers may be used to. But it also seems appropriate, especially since "Believing Africa" deals with a topic -- Africa's rich melting pot of religious practices and traditions -- with which few Americans are familiar.
Diversity of icons
The show also differs from traditional displays of "African art" in the way it mixes artifacts from different regions and cultures.
Just past the Dogon mask, for example, is a display of Coptic Christian scrolls and icons from Ethiopia. In one icon, Christ appears in the traditional guise of the "Man of Sorrows," his head wreathed with thorns and nails. In another, he's accompanied by the Virgin Mary and the 12 apostles.
For some viewers, finding these examples of Christian iconography in an exhibit of African art may come as a surprise. (Then again, it shouldn't: As one of the show's text panels explains, Christianity has deep roots in Africa, dating back to the decades immediately after Christ's crucifixion.)
Islam, too, has a long history in Africa, and not just in Arab-dominated countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Algeria. A pair of wooden boards painted with verses from the Koran, for example, are from Somalia. Meanwhile, a striking wooden mask from the West African nation of Burkina Faso is topped with a carved horse and rider representing a traditional Muslim trader.
In addition to the art and artifacts on display, "Believing Africa" also includes a number of large photographic panels. The one near the exhibit's Islamic section shows a man praying at the Great Mosque in Touba, Senegal, considered the largest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa.
Other sections focus on specific rituals or religious practices. One of the show's most striking displays, for example, highlights the coming-of-age rituals practiced by Mende people of present-day Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Specifically, the display features about a dozen of the finely carved wooden masks that Mende women make as part of initiation ceremonies for young girls. Though no two masks are exactly alike, the same elements -- high foreheads, delicate facial features and elaborate coiled necklaces -- appear in each mask and express Mende ideals of feminine beauty.
Algebra of brutality
The same section also plunges into one of Africa's most impassioned cultural controversies. That's the practice of removing all or part of a woman's clitoris before marriage -- a procedure known variously as "female circumcision," "genital cutting" or "female genital mutilation."
Though the practice has a long history in Africa, where it's a rite of passage from many African women (including the Mende), it has been widely condemned in the West as a threat to women's health and a brutal form of social and sexual control.
Unfortunately, while "Believing Africa" deserves credit for calling attention to the issue, its discussion of female circumcision is a model of politically correct silliness. Indeed, the text panel devoted to the subject can barely bring itself to describe the process, which it insists on referring to by the trumped-up acronym "FG."
Why "FG"? Because, as the text panel helpfully explains, "the terms used in the West for the practice -- female genitalmutilation, cutting, modification, surgery and their acronyms (FGM, FGC, etc.) -- betray our cultural assumptions. Each is loaded. Rather than choose one, the practices are referred to here by the algebraic variable: FG."
Of course, an algebraic variable! That solves everything! (At the very least, viewers could have been directed to organizations such as Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org) and the World Health Organization (www.who.int) that have more extensive discussions of the issue on their Web sites.)
Still, this is a terrific little show. Yes, there's a lot of background material to wade through, but the results are generally worth the effort.
At the very least, you'll come away with a deeper understanding of African religious and spiritual traditions, as well as a new appreciation for the depth and richness of the Haffenreffer's permanent collection.
The Haffenreffer Museum's satellite gallery is located in Manning Hall, near Prospect and Waterman streets, on the Brown University campus in Providence. Hours are Tue.-Sun. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Phone: (401) 253-8388.
firstname.lastname@example.org / (401) 277-7421
Haffenreffer Museum NewsHaffenreffer Museum of Anthropology Opens 2nd On-Campus Exhibition
20 May 2006 by Administrator
Brown University’s Haffenreffer
Museum of Anthropology will open its second on-campus exhibition, Believing
Africa, on Saturday, May 27, 2006. The exhibition, focusing on African
spiritual beliefs, will be on display in the Museum’s satellite gallery at
Manning Hall, located on The College Green. The opening coincides with
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