A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Out of Africa Treasures at the Smithsonian in Washington
By JACQUELINE TRESCOTT
The traditional, of course, is expected: the late-15th to early-16th century male head carved by the Edo people of the Benin Kingdom in Nigeria, or the mask of a woman with braids by her forehead carved by the Chokwe people of the Congo in the early 20th century. But it is also the unexpected: a smooth vase without any adornments or carvings done in 1994 by Magdalene Anyango N. Odundo of Kenya, the environmental canvas of South Africa's Georgia Papageorge, who draws natural rifts in the style of topography maps to symbolize political upheaval, and an animated film by William Kentridge of South Africa illustrating the exploitation of the African worker today. This inclusion shows a new phase of the museum's interest.
"The museum has spoken volumes about the formal recognition of Africans to the United States and the recognition of the contributions of African art to world art," says Sharon F. Patton, an art historian and scholar of West African and African American art who 18 months ago became the museum director.
But some, especially Patton, are asking whether that is enough.
The museum is one of only two in the United States devoted solely to the collection of both traditional and contemporary African art. Its permanent holdings include 8,000 objects and 300,000 photographs, from Life photographer Eliot Elisofon, a globe-trotting photojournalist who covered the major events and people of the mid-20th century, and Constance Stuart Larrabee, who covered World War II and South African life. The Museum for African Art in New York is much smaller.
The number of museums, serious collectors and published scholars concentrating on African art is relatively small. Warren M. Robbins, the founding director of the Washington museum, and Nancy Nooter, a donor and longtime board member, examined the field for their "African Art in American Collections Survey 1989," and found about 1,000 significant private collections and 250 museum collections.
The museum retains its importance as a catalyst for debates within the art world. Lowery Stokes Sims, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, says the museum is "a laboratory for discussion" of how individuality flourishes in the African art context and the origins of modern art. "There is still a need to resurrect African art from being mere signals to Picasso," says Sims.
Still the African Art Museum is dwarfed by its sister Smithsonian museums in the size of its collections, in attendance, and in visibility. First of all, it is in an underground building that goes down three stories. In 2003 African Art drew 170,235 visitors, out of 24 million for the total Smithsonian.
Ned Rifkin, undersecretary of art at the Smithsonian who oversees the African Art museum, says the institution is on a firm footing but needs to plan its future in a world of fast-changing public tastes. "It is well positioned to do that. I'm pleased with the foundation," he says. But it is time to stretch, even if the economy is putting the brakes on large expansions. "I have nothing but praise for what has happened up to now. Now it is time for a quantum leap."
The museum has mounted 130 special exhibitions in 25 years, making it a solid force in the international art world. Today the museum has 400 contemporary objects in the permanent collection, with 40 of them on display in a show called "Insights." The contemporary art is drawn from family, political and spiritual themes. The topics can be love, poverty, disenfranchisement, politics and exile.
The museum is the go-to place for contemporary African art in America, both in its galleries and in its research facilities. With the infusion of the Smithsonian money, the library grew from about 3,000 volumes to 30,000. The book collection covers visual arts, history, anthropology, religion, travel and even cookbooks.
Although there are few quarrels with the quality of the displays, some veterans, such as Robbins, want the museum to have more of a social-hall feeling — a destination for groups and fraternal organizations, such as the National Urban League. Robbins says missing those opportunities makes it isolated and elitist. "I am happy to know that something I started grew, and is guaranteed through perpetuity. But I first wanted it to be a public museum and it got to be elitist. And the only way to increase attendance is through activities," says Robbins.
Today, its supporters believe, there is still a need to be instructional, to go behind the art and give some understanding of today's Africa, and what current events mean to African-Americans and all black people in the diaspora.
Patton wants the museum to balance all those roles, and doesn't think the time has passed for promoting Africa or using the prestige of a museum to counter and explain the often horrible news from Africa, from wars to genocide to regime-induced mass starvations. "We still have an education role: to be an antidote to news from Africa. Almost every time Africa is mentioned it is about HIV and AIDS. We have to think about Africa differently," she says. Art is one conduit, she argues. "It is a retrievable and redeemable culture. Art has a way of providing a narrative for issues and provides a place of solace."
As the anniversary events start, Patton is doing physically what her three predecessors did culturally with their art mix — tear down the walls. When it opens in November, the anniversary show "Treasures" — a collection of masterpieces of ancient and modern times — will replace three separate galleries and total 7,000 square feet.
Patton's task is to make sure people see more. More and more pieces are being moved to the center of the floor. "When you see them from all sides," says Patton, "that is discovery." And hopefully a rediscovery of the treasures below the ground.
La Smithsonian a 25 ans ( in French)
Native American museum to seek balance of old, new
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