A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Africa: The Sainsbury African Galleries
says Richard Dorment from the ArtNewspaper
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.
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.
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.
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mail David Norden phone +32 3 227.35.40