A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Resonance from the Past at The Middlebury College Museum of Art
Ifá Divination Bowl: Opon Igede, early 20th century, Yoruba peoples, city of Osi-Ilorin, Ekiti region, Nigeria; Carver: Dada Areogun of Osi-Ilorin (c. 1880–1954); wood. Museum purchase with funds in honor of E. John Bullard’s twenty-fifth anniversary as director of NOMA. 98.52
African Art Goes on View September 18 2007
Found at middlebury.edu
Drawn from one of the outstanding collections of African art in the United
States, Resonance from the Past: African Sculpture from the New Orleans
Museum of Art includes figures of gods, spirits, and ancestors, as
well as ceremonial masks, headdresses, and ritual objects created by the peoples
of West and Central Africa. These stunning works, which date from the
seventeenth through the twentieth century, reveal the richness of traditional
African culture and also serve as potent reminders of the aesthetic influence of
African art on European Modernism.
The Middlebury College Museum of Art is an integral educational and cultural component of Middlebury College. In addition, the Museum serves the surrounding communities in Vermont and New York.
Middlebury College Museum of Art
Emmie Donadio, Chief Curator
Tribal sculpture show shifts African bias
By Alexxa Gotthardt 9/19/07 found at media.www.middleburycampus.com
More than 80 African sculptures comprise the Middlebury College Museum of Art's newest exhibition, including an intricately assembled masquerade dance costume.An issue forever surrounding the art world concerns art's capacity to affect, to stir, to touch the viewer. Is art more than just something pretty or interesting to look at, or is it conceived with a greater goal in mind? "Resonance from the Past: African Sculpture from the New Orleans Museum of Art," a compelling, ebullient season-opener for the Middlebury College Museum of Art (MCMA) and its first major African Art exhibition in over a decade, gives this question great intellectual nourishment. The show, on loan from the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and guest curated by Frank Herreman of NOMA, opened , Sept. 18.
In many African cultures, the connection between objects and the spiritual world is a strong one, and a connection manifested in the works of "Resonance from the Past."
"Many African sculptures embody the spirits of ancestors or higher powers," said Robert P. Youngman Curator of Asian Art Colin Mackenzie. "The work is not about beauty, it's about power - the power of the spirit."
The more than 80 works of art in the show, created in Central and Sub-Saharan Africa from the late 17th to the second half of the 20th century, were mostly used in spiritual ceremonies or created for the purpose of worship, initiation or commemoration. Masks, figures, ivory statuettes, architectural elements, ceramics, costumes and beadwork vibrantly embody the inspirations, beliefs and talents of well over 20 African tribes and seem to resonate with the inspirations of their creators.
The objects are arranged according to their region of origin, creating a kind of artistic map of Sub-Saharan Africa. Western Nigeria Benin, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Southeastern Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, Mali and Burkina Faso are all represented. The broad time period and the large number of works, makes this geographical organization not only effective but necessary. Also well thought out is the circular space in the center of the gallery, created by two crescent walls. The space creates a nucleus of energy, perhaps meant to evoke the center square of an African town or the circular motion of a ritual dance.
In addition, the sense of travel or exploration through the art is amplified by the brightly colored walls - turquoise, orange, yellow and green. And while the intensely cheerful paint choices might come off as childish in another setting, against the displayed works they seem fitting, even sophisticated choices. The colors are not random, but chosen specifically to reflect the different regions and tribal cultures of the sculpture.
To get a sense of where this exotic, perhaps unfamiliar art originates, the exhibition provides iPods equipped with a selection of tribal drumming and chant. Like the walls, the music corresponds directly with the regions - and rituals - represented. The tracks were chosen by Sarah Dewey '07.5, who recently completed a thesis on African art.
As effective as the backdrop is, it remains backdrop thanks to the spectacular sculptures themselves. Ranging from miniscule to huge, sparkling to mud-caked, harshly simplistic to opulently ornate, the objects stand for many different facets of African culture.
Some of the most striking pieces in the exhibition are the boldly carved masks - at least one from every regional group. The Ngafui mask, carved and assembled by the Loma (or Toma) people on the border of Liberia and Guinea, depicts a large male face, its exaggerated features, bulging eyes and king-sized feather headdress commanding attention. While its geometric surfaces seem to point to a quick carve-job, at closer glance a keen attention to detail is obvious. Thin, delicate lines adorn the cheeks, and the ears and teeth are well-defined, almost realistic. Monkey fur is used for the beard, and a bit of hair even sprouts out of the cylindrical nose. The mask seems a blend of the primitive and the sophisticated, and the effect is powerful. It is easy to imagine the awe or fear it might inspire at an initiation ceremony or funeral celebration.
The Ogbodo Enyi crest mask of the Izzi Igbo peoples of Nigeria also stands out as both visually bold and complex. Its many flat planes and segmented pieces parts - the lips, for instance, seem to have at least six distinct surfaces - call to mind Picasso's cubist figures (which were inspired by African masks). The mask's severe features, menacing horn and double head certainly create the fear-inspiring effect the Izzi Igbo people hoped for - the spirits of Ogbodo Enyi "were described as harsh, violent, threatening spirits" that "were most probably powerful agents of social control," according to the exhibtion's catalog.
Numerous fertility figures and small ivory statuettes also form a dynamic portion of the show. The Jonyeleni Nyeleni female figure's preposterous cone-shaped breasts and black sheen are typical of the fertility statues and the ivory amulet created by the Luba peoples of Congo conveys an impressive amount of emotion for its miniscule stature.
One of the most spectacular pieces of the exhibition, situated in the center circle, is the Ekuu Egungun masquerade dance costume. While many of the works displayed have faded or completely lost their color over the years, this costume is still brilliantly colorful thanks to the intricate beading and patchwork. Damasks and velvets in browns, reds, golds and blues combine with the intricately patterned beadwork of the mask and lapel (even the nose is made of knots of red beads), inspiring both attention and awe - a desired goal of the creators in order to appropriately revere the ancestors that the costume embodies.
Aside from its visual force, the origin of the materials is also noteworthy. While the shells are certainly from Oyo region of Nigeria, most of the fabrics were imported from Europe, as were the tiny beads. This recalls not only the exchange of materials between Europe and Africa, but also the slave trade.
2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire - a system that degraded and dehumanized the people of Africa for decades. "Resonance from the Past" comes to the public at an appropriate time. Through the exhibition of these artistic achievements - achievements which surely suggest spiritual and imaginative creators - the often undermined sophistication of the African people is celebrated. This celebration of the African culture was a major goal of Herreman and of MCMA's curators who worked to bring the exhibition to Middlebury.
"In an era when much of what we hear about Africa is negative, this exhibition brings to Middlebury something overwhelmingly positive," said Mackenzie. "The stunning works in the exhibition demonstrate vividly that traditional African culture is rich, visually highly sophisticated and possesses a history stretching back centuries."
"Resonance from the Past's" cultural associations also resonate at Middlebury. In embodying an important aspect of history and a diverse range of African cultures, the exhibition corresponds with the College's continuing commitment to diversity.
"I think the arts can play an important role in the diversity initiative," said Mackenzie, "and [Dean for Institutional Diversity] Shirley Ramirez certainly recognizes this through her [spoken] support."
Individually, each sculpture in "Resonance from the Past" provides visual stimulation and cultural insight. Together, the more than 80 sculptures make up a thoughtful, visually impressive exhibition that reveals art with a greater goal in mind than aesthetic pleasure - a goal conceived and executed by a intelligent, spiritual and introspective people.
"Resonance of the Past: African Sculpture from the New Orleans Museum of Art" will be up in the MCMA until Dec. 9, 2007. Various lectures by experts in the field of African art, music and culture will accompany the exhibition throughout its three-month run.
© Copyright 2007 The Middlebury Campus
Mom posted 9/19/2007
What, exactly, is the meaning of the headline "Tribal sculpture show shifts African bias" for this review?
Isn't it possible to do a serious review of what appears to be an excellent exhibit without all the self-congratulation about "diversity?"
The point about African art is that it stands on its own. We should not be viewing it to feel virtuous about commitment to diversity. How patronizing.
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Tribal Arts of Africa
mail David Norden phone +32 3 227.35.40