A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit Michigan
Review: African architectural pieces offer many reasons to see them
Tuesday, October 17, 2006 By Roger Green Booth Arts found at http://www.mlive.com
Charles Wright DETROIT -- The mix was complex, to say the least. Indigenous architecture developed in Africa by fusing pragmatic concerns with native spiritual beliefs. In parts of the continent with international traffic, influences from the Middle East and Europe also contributed.
That's the synthesis portrayed in "Lasting Foundations: The Art of Architecture in Africa," an eye-opening exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History through Dec. 15. Organized by New York's Museum for African Art, the traveling exhibit of wooden artifacts and large-scale photographs surveys traditional architecture in 13 present-day African nations.
The disparate items draw attention to materials such as mud-brick, fiber and stone, and to buildings' rectilinear or sinuous shapes. But the exhibit focuses mostly on surface decoration -- that is, on elaborate carving and painting. "Lasting Foundations" is a trove of decorative objects freighted with symbolism. Visitors will be captivated by many of the handsome items on view.
However, while ornamental, many items are also functional. That's particularly true of carved-wood locks, each combining a stationary, vertical element and a sliding, horizontal one. Symbolic figures and motifs ensure that the locks will protect their users spiritually as well as physically.
Examples on view were created by the Dogon and Bamana peoples, both of Mali. The Dogon locks, from granary doors, incorporate freestanding twin figures, representing ancestors. The more elaborate Bamana locks often include a male ancestor figure whose traditional, rounded hat combats sorcery.
Functional wooden doors from Nigeria also are richly carved. From Nigeria's Igbo and Nupe peoples come two formally opposed examples. The Igbo door is overspread with abstract, geometric shapes. By contrast, the Nupe door shows portrayals of recognizable animals decorated with patterns in relief.
Another Nigerian door, carved by a Yoruba artist, uses recognizable imagery to reinforce the idea of kingship in Yoruba society. The central section of the door portrays an equestrian male figure or king, symbol of martial strength and wealth. A similar figure appears in a carved-wood post from a Yoruba palace. However, while the post is assertive it's in no way sexist. The king is supported by a female figure, demonstrating women's importance to continuing the Yoruba kingdom.
Other posts, along with stepped columns that perform as ladders, also appear. One post, created by Nigeria's Tiv people, incorporates a seated, anatomically explicit male, who may portray a ruler or his royal ancestor. Posts and ladders from Mali are barely anthropomorphized figures, their shapes mostly dictated by original tree trunks and branches. The leaps of imagination these pieces preserve are transporting.
One of the Mali figures, with pronounced breasts, represents a woman. According to text, the figure comes from the roof of a men's meeting house, and so symbolizes female presence during male elders' discussions of village problems. That's deference fully due women, the exhibit shows, in photos documenting their literally stunning contributions to African architecture
Traditionally, women have been tasked with painting and incising ornamental patterns on buildings' exterior walls. One photo, of a mud-brick compound in Ghana, shows curvilinear walls covered with dazzling, dark-light, geometric designs. However, it's in South Africa that wall painting achieves its fullest flowering, even attaining heroic status.
Photos show whitewashed walls painted by female Ndebele people, with brilliantly colored, abstract designs meant to symbolically affirm identity and resist apartheid. The same resistance shows in walls paintings from Lesotho, a small, land-locked country surrounded by South Africa. There, symbolic colors include black, green and gold -- the colors of the anti-apartheid African National Congress.
Decoration as protest? The idea may surprise some. But it's one of many
surprises awaiting viewers.
IF YOU GO: The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is at 315 East Warren Ave. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call (313) 494-5800 or access www.maah-detroit.org .
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