The art of Africa is still terra incognita to the West. A few sculptural types -- Benin bronzes, Fang reliquary figures -- have become museum staples. But they serve as stand-ins for an entire aesthetic universe, one all but unchartable in its novelty and invention.
Novelty and invention, some of it startling, are high among the attractions of ''Kilengi: African Art From the Bareiss Family Collection,'' a traveling exhibition of sub-Saharan sculpture making its final stop at the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College of the State University of New York.
The 200-plus pieces belong to Walter Bareiss, a German-born businessman who
has a home in Greenwich, Conn., not far from the Purchase campus. Many are
from eastern and southern Africa, areas underrepresented in museums; a few are
types of images rarely seen or even known until recently.
Among the surprises are two monumental wooden marionettes installed at the beginning of the show. Made by an artist or artists of the Sukuma people of Tanzania, these lithe figures are nearly seven feet tall; their limbs are carved and jointed, their torsos covered with sheets of hammered tin that end at the upper thigh, like micromini-skirts.
Such figures were created for display in competitive dance performances. They were clearly meant to cause a stir. The show's curator, Christopher D. Roy of the University of Iowa, says in the exhibition catalogue that the Bareiss examples were big news to him when he first saw them, and a visitor coming on them cold at the Neuberger might not take them for African at all.
Tanzania is the source of other memorable entries. One is a puppet about
the size of a pre-adolescent child. He was made as a surrogate figure, to play
the crucial role of first-born son and mourner at the tomb of a man who died
without leaving male heirs. He has funny, tiny, helpless-looking hands, and
his round face with its pressed-together lips suggests -- to one outside eye,
at least -- that he is about to hum something or break into tears.
Nearby are two extraordinary female figures. One, possibly from the Kerewe people, who live on an island in Lake Victoria, is as reed-thin but insistently there as a Giacometti sculpture. The other, which has a shapely chin and two thick plaits of hair, was carved as a finial for a staff and is attributed to an artist known as the Master of the Skirted Lady.
From the Kamba people of Kenya comes a small standing male figure. His
glowing skin is ornamented with incised fish-net patterns of scars. Pinned to
his chest is a cut tin badge resembling a stylish moth-shaped Art Deco brooch.
What the emblem means is a mystery. The Kamba appear to have stopped making
such figures in the years after World War II. Other objects pose similar
questions of meaning and function. We are unclear about how to understand a
pair of masks from the Beke people of northeastern Congo. They are covered
with spatters of white paint that look like wounds or stars, but when a
Belgian art dealer asked the Beke for an explanation, they claimed not to know
or refused to say.
But the show also offers answers. A king's wooden stool looks at first glance like a puzzlingly offbeat version of a signature Luba object. In fact, it is the work of neighboring Zula people, who have adapted Luba styles. Every time such an instance of cross-cultural transmission and transformation is revealed and documented, the account African art history is further refined.
That history was often radically shaped by colonialism, and objects have many tales to tell of its impact. Some of those tales are fairly benign: a Songye dance mask, though nearly a century old, is in uncannily pristine condition, because the pioneering German anthropologist Leo Frobenius (1873-1938) acquired it before it was ever used. Other stories are terrible. A wooden power figure, or nkisi, collected during Henry Morton Stanley's empire-building march through the Congo in the 1870's, was a silent witness to destruction. And with his body bent forward in a posture of smoldering aggression, he seems to be staring evil down.
This sculpture conforms in style and type to what are deemed classical African sculptures, though many other works seen here do not. Nor are they all ''authentic,'' in the conventional sense of having been made for specific uses within the culture that produced them. A pretty Makonde stool from Tanzania, with a hands-on-hips female figure as its base, was probably carved for tourists in the 1920's. But ''tourist art'' isn't the pejorative designation it once was, and authenticity as a concept is being rethought. Recent scholarship has acknowledged that art is a fluid category, its value defined not just by culturally determined aesthetic standards but also by the complex things it has to say about both the people who make it and those who acquire it.
Since the 1950's, Makonde artists have been creating sinuous ebony figures called shetani, which means devils in Arabic. Although advertised as having supernatural origins, the sculptures are freshly minted forms conceived with Western expectations in mind: each is unique in some detail and is signed with the name of a sculptor. For the artists, these images provide a livelihood; for their clients they offer a psychological link to an imagined African past.
Shetani-style sculptures are not included in ''Kilengi,'' though they would
not be out of place. Much of the work in the Bareiss collection similarly
breaks down canonical boundaries, blurs the distinction between traditional
and contemporary and in the process underscores the conceptual elasticity and
visual inventiveness of African art. ''Kilengi,'' by the way, is a Bantu word
signifying the feeling of joy inspired by beauty. It is most aptly applied
''Kilengi: African Art From the Bareiss Family Collection'' is at the Neuberger Museum of Art, the State University of New York, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, N.Y., (914) 251-6100 through Jan. 9.
: African Art from the Bareiss Family Collection
(Hardcover) by Christopher D. Roy, Kestner Gesellschaft, Gail Zlatnick, Kestner-Gesellschaft (Corporate Author)
read also Bareiss collection