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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Africa: The Sainsbury African Galleries

 

The  British Museum  
6 Burlington Gardens
London W1X 2EXT

Africa in a thrilling new light
The British Museum's new galleries are a stunning success

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says Richard Dorment from the ArtNewspaper

Benin Mask, ivory, iron, copper, and wire. From Benin, Nigeria from the 16th century
If you remember the way African art was shown at the old Museum of Mankind, you may be taken aback by the sheer theatricality of the new presentation of the collections at the British Museum in Bloomsbury. At the old museum in Burlington Gardens, for example, the full scale recreation of an African village was not dreary, exactly, but goodness it was educational. The tiny fraction of the collection on display there was used to illustrate the customs and ceremonies of indigenous peoples - and that was that. With the emphasis so firmly on ethnography, gaiety and exuberance were in short supply. If some of the objects happened to be visually exciting so much the better, but somehow it was not the point of the installation.

In the new Sainsbury African galleries, art takes precedence over anthropology. The designer Geoff Pickup has placed objects in floor-to-ceiling glass cases, then spot lit them from above and below, as though each item were a performer on a stage. In the centre of one gallery a circular metal stand piled high with oversize vessels spirals towards the ceiling, while decorated dance shields made by the Kikuyu people of Kenya are arranged in bold patters on the walls. In another gallery, a giant masquerade outfit from Malawi in the shape of an antelope adds to the carnival atmosphere, the African equivalent of a pantomime horse. The new galleries manage to be delightful, exotic and slightly menacing all at the same time - like Africa itself.

Wooden head-dress used by members of the Yoruba Gelede society.

A section entitled `Masquerade’, for example, features dozens of Nigerian painted wooden masks dating from the 19th century to the present day. It takes a moment to realise that all represent river or sea monsters. A snaggle-toothed crocodile, a roaring hippo, a predatory shark and a razor thin swordfish are all shown floating in space, either suspended at different heights from the ceiling by invisible wires, or rising up from the display stand on slim rods. The effect is of a vast aquarium - at once comical, colourful and grotesque.

But that is not all. Nearby, a short film showing a recent performance of a mask ceremony of the Kalabari people in Southern Nigeria demonstrates how a hippo mask is used in a masquerade ceremony. Then, if you turn around, you are confronted by a scary sculpture by a contemporary Nigerian artist of a masked dancer wearing a bloody apron and wielding a huge cutlass. Although the written labels explaining masquerade are excellent, they aren’t really necessary. We come to understand something of the awe the masquerader arouses in the eyes of the outsider largely through visual means.

Chronological display, so fundamental in showing Western art, is not important here. The thematic arrangement works in these galleries because of the timeless, living quality of the artifacts shown in them. Wall labels explain the practical use of virtually everything in the collection, reminding us that fetish figures, masks, grave figures and door lintels were made by people who had no word in their language corresponding to our concept of `art’.

Purists will worry - purists always do worry - that such objects are being shown outside of the religious, ritual or domestic contexts for which they were made. But 20th century artists from Picasso and Modigliani taught us to aestheticise these things, and once something has been seen as art, it is very difficult not to see it that way. And anyway, a large number of the works here were always objets d'art, in the full western sense.

Queen mother head from Edo, Benin, Nigeria, made of brass, 16th century.

Ever since the discovery of Benin material in the late 19th century, Westerners have appreciated the extraordinary cast brass figures made there in the 15th and 16th centuries, some pre-dating the earliest known contacts with Europeans. The famous 16th century memorial head of a Queen Mother, for example, belongs on any list of the 10 most beautiful works of art in the world. The naturalistic modelling, the crisp quality of the lost wax cast, and the exquisitely chased details could be compared with a bronze by any contemporary Renaissance sculptor at this date. And much more visible in this display than they were on the staircase at the Museum of Mankind are 48 brass reliefs cast in the 16th century to decorate the exterior of the royal palace at Benin. Each relief shows a warrior or king covered in animal pelts, bristling with weapons and supported by retainers, letting any who approached the palace know that this one ruler you didn't want to mess with.

But then, with the obvious exception of Egypt, the whole history of Africa is here, including Morocco and Algeria as well as sub-Sahara black Africa. It was good to see again the splendid lyre made in the Sudan in the 19th century, which is strung with beads, shells, bells, amulets, rosaries and coins (one as old as 1861). This magical object always strikes me as an instrument such as might have accompanied Homer as he sang of the travels of Odysseus. An 18th or 19th century carved wood ancestral screen showing a slave- trading Kalabari chieftain surrounded by retainers (or captives) and severed human heads is at once charming and sinister. In one of the most fearful of the Congolese fetish figures, the swollen belly of a greedy man gapes open to reveal a set of sharp teeth.

In such works, it is as though we come face to face with our own deepest fears and desires. Naturally and unselfconsciously, African craftsman put into their work all the cruelty and sexuality that European artists spent centuries trying to repress, and then, in the 20th century, desperately trying to recapture.

But there are also objects filled with the sweet tenderness and humour that is also quintessentially African. A carved door and lintel made in Niger between 1910 -14 depicts a colonial official carried in his litter to meet the Yoruba King. The European is trailed by a retinue of manacled prisoners, his royal highness by a delightful harem of wives and babies. Ah, but where to stop? Fantasy coffins in the shape of a bird and a Mercedes Benz motor car made within the last year or so in Ghana, and a shirt decorated with emblems for the Kenya World Cup made me want to start collecting contemporary African art. In short, the Sainsbury galleries are a stunning success - as thrilling both for adults and children as the Assyrian and Egyptian galleries whose collections many of us now feel we know almost too well. My prediction is that these new galleries will become among the most popular attractions at the British Museum. Congratulations all around, but please, a solo bow for Mr Pickup.


Images courtesy of the British Museum

 

 

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The Tribal Arts of Africa

The Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart

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