In a New Jersey Suburb, a Potent Look at the Use of Color in African Art
African Art Museum of the S.M.A. Fathers
23 Bliss Avenue,
Tenafly, N.J., New York,. USA (201) 894-8611.
through Jan. 30, 2005.
Photographs from Aida and Robert E. Mates/African Art Museum of the S.M.A. Fathers
An Ejagham headpiece, made from animal skin stretched over wood.
African Art Museum of the S.M.A. Fathers
23 Bliss Avenue, Tenafly, N.J.
By HOLLAND COTTER . Found at N.Y.Times January 8, 2005
TENAFLY, N.J. - Drive over the Hudson River and through the woodsy streets of this suburb and you'll find a surprise: a museum devoted entirely to African art, with an eye-sharpening exhibition that may change the way you look at such art.
Why are these things here? The museum is run by the Society of African Missions, an order of Roman Catholic priests established in France in 1856, with branches in Ireland and the Netherlands, and with residential headquarters in Tenafly since the 1940's. The priests spend much of their time in Africa. One of them, the Rev. Kevin Carroll, who was stationed in Nigeria for decades, holds a place in art history books.
As a missionary, he was in the business of introducing and promoting new ideas to a host culture. But as someone with an interest in art - and the order has a history of such interest - he also felt compelled to preserve certain existing traditions. In a town called Oye Ekiti, he set up a workshop modeled on Yoruba prototypes, where young sculptors could train under master carvers. The project attracted major talent. The well-known sculptor Bandele of Osi Ilorin, son of the even more famous Areogun, was among the teachers. His apprentices included Lamidi Fakeye, who became an international star.
Although religious conversion was not a prerequisite for joining the workshop, the Ekiti artists specialized in carving Christian images in Yoruba style, mostly for local churches. Meanwhile, as had been true for more than a century, priests were acquiring African art, old and new, and sending it to Europe and the United States.
In 1964, Father Carroll commissioned Bandele to carve a set of four doors, with narrative reliefs melding biblical and Yoruba themes, for the Tenafly headquarters. They flank the entrance to the African Art Museum of the S.M.A. Fathers (the initials reflect the French version of the order's name), which consists of three modest galleries: a rotunda area and two short hallways.
The small permanent collection has expanded considerably since 1996, when Robert J. Koenig, a retired director of the Montclair Art Museum, became its director and began attracting gifts from collectors. He has also mounted a series of ambitious loan shows. "Surfaces: Color, Substances and Ritual Applications on African Sculpture" is the current one, and it's impressive.
A manageable size at 60 pieces, it is well thought out, cleanly installed in the somewhat awkward circular space and accompanied by a solid catalog, to be printed later this year. In addition, it touches on at least one big, obvious subject - the use of color in African art - that has received little direct attention elsewhere.
The show revolves around two main ideas. The first is that most African sculpture is conceived as spiritually and socially animated, and interactive, too. The second is that such vivacity is not intrinsic to a piece when it leaves the artist's hand. The work becomes alive and functional when ritually significant materials or substances are added to it, transforming a neutral image into a channel for supernatural forces.
These enhancements take various forms that the curators - Donna Page, an art historian, and Leonard Kahan, a former art dealer - illustrate by grouping objects under descriptive categories like "encrustation," "color," "patina" and "multiple materials." A catchall, "multiple materials" contains disparate items like an Asante staff finial covered with gold leaf; an Ejagham headpiece made from animal skin stretched over wood; and a Kongo Nkisi, or "power figure," its body all but obscured by pounded-in nails and metal blades.
The Nkisi is designed to be intimidatingly, even terrifyingly ugly: the point is to keep malign spirits on the run. And the surface of a Bamana object called a boli is comparably repellent, though in a different way. In this case, sacrificial offerings of crushed vegetable matter, earth and animal blood have been smeared over a core form to make a thick, fissured crust. The resulting object, with its dark and swollen but indeterminate shape, looks as tight with lethal energy as a ticking bomb.
Attraction, however, is every bit as potent as repulsion in art; and beauty, like unsightliness, is a surface attribute with profound implications. Mende masks from Liberia and Sierra Leone represent an ideal of human well-being. Dyed black, they are lavished with oils until their surfaces glow like healthy human skin. Ibeji twin figures, carved by Yoruba as substitutes for dead or absent children, are so lovingly coddled, bathed and anointed that their surfaces grow silky and their features are sometimes rubbed smooth.
This obliteration through human touch is just one of several kinds of erosion the show documents. Disintegration from the effects of weather and insect depredation are others. Each reinforces the idea that the reality of material impermanence, which Western museums make every effort to arrest or even reverse, is a fact of life fully acknowledged by Africa's fundamentally organic, process-intensive aesthetic.
Finally, there is the subject of applied color, to which fully half of the show is devoted. On the whole, the approach is formal, literally superficial, focused less on what colors mean than on where they come from, with samples of sources from powdered minerals, to vegetable oils and resins, to a laundry detergent used as a bluing agent, displayed in a single vitrine in the center of the gallery.
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In fact, African color symbolism, with its ethical, physiological and therapeutic implications, differs from its mainstream equivalent in the West. And while it has been addressed by various historians of African art, among them Henry John Drewal, Anita Jacobson-Widding, Allen Roberts, Victor Turner and, recently, Bolaji Campbell, it has yet to be awarded full-dress treatment by an American museum. This show is a step in that direction.
"Surfaces" remains at the African Art Museum of the S.M.A. Fathers, 23 Bliss Avenue, Tenafly, N.J., through Jan.
30, 2005; (201) 894-8611.
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