The new exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art, Resonance from the Past: African Sculpture from the New Orleans Museum of Art, opened to a fairly quiet crowd at the members' reception on June 24 - quiet because it's difficult to sustain social banter with a slack jaw. Few patrons seemed to anticipate the masterworks included in the show or the intensity of the collection as a whole. To fully enjoy the exhibit, it helps to be interested in African art and culture, but, on a fundamental level, this exhibition distills artistic expression to essentials of physical form, texture, philosophical investment, and the potential inherent spiritual power in a man-made object.
An Ibibio headdress (above) and an Igbo crest mask (below) resemble the work of Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso, two paragons of Modernism influenced by African art. These connections are just one of the compelling reasons to see the African sculpture exhibit on display at SAMA, writes Diana Roberts.
The show is a joint project of NOMA and the Museum for African Art in New York, and one of its stated goals is to make this important collection available to a wider audience. According to William Fagaly, curator of African art at NOMA, with the exception of a few connoisseurs and scholars, this collection has been a well-kept secret. Many of the works appear in some of the most prominent scholarly texts and anthologies of African art, but the museum hasn't typically been the Crescent City's calling card. There's definitely a note of cosmic justice in having the roots of Mardi Gras, Creole, voodoo, and jazz all bound up in a neat package of source material in the NOMA collection, and after Resonance from the Past finishes its U.S. and European tours, the museum might get more attention.
There is a handful of major African collections in the U.S., including the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Seattle Art Museum. The NOMA collection is on par with the best. Fagaly, who has been with NOMA since 1966, says the acquisition of "140 superb pieces" in 1977 from the Victor Kiam collection was "a defining moment" in establishing a strong collection, which has grown considerably over the years.
Resonance features nearly 100 works from western and central Africa, which comprise only about 30 percent of the entire NOMA collection. The exhibit was curated by Frank Herreman, former director of exhibitions at the Museum for African Art in New York. Rather than attempting to represent the breadth of the collection, Herreman selected the works he deemed the most aesthetically potent. Within that framework, the show is organized by region and tribal identification, with lucid and uncomplicated labels combining the most recent scholarship by the foremost scholars in the field. If you don't know much about African sculpture when you enter, you'll be fairly well-informed by the time you leave.
For San Antonio, the exhibit is an important benchmark. Marion Oettinger, director of the San Antonio Museum of Art, says this is the only major exhibition of African tribal art presented in San Antonio in the last 20 years, and the first at SAMA. "As much as we like to think of the Museum as encyclopedic in representing the major art traditions of the world, like all museums we tend to respond to the largess and generosity of patrons and collectors," says Oettinger. San Antonio hasn't benefitted from an African-art equivalent of Asian collector Walter Brown, or Gilbert Denman's Antiquities and Oceanic gifts which, along with SAMA's impressive Pre-Columbian and Latin American galleries, form the core of SAMA's permanent collection.
Traveling exhibitions of this quality go a long way toward filling in the gaps, and Africa is a crucial gap to fill. It is the second-largest continent and a major focus for studies in evolution, human civilization, resource management, social and political upheaval, the horrors of slavery and colonialism, and the equal horror of post-colonial social and economic meltdown. Africa also has been the source for some of the most powerful artistic and cultural trends of the modern world, from music, dance, spirituality and language to Western Modernism.
It's well documented that the paragons of Modernism were deeply influenced by African sculpture, and some of the works in this exhibition make that connection abundantly clear. The Igbo crest mask will seem familiar to anyone versed in cubism, and the Ibibio headdress looks every bit like a Max Ernst sculpture. Fagaly points out that Kiam initially collected works by his friend Picasso, also acquiring works by Giacometti, Dubuffet, and Braque. Many of these artists, including Rene Magritte, whose prints are coincidentally displayed in SAMA's Focus Gallery, were themselves collectors of African and other tribal arts. Fagaly never asked Kiam if Picasso's interest in African sculpture sparked his own, but concedes, "It certainly may have influenced him."
The risk in looking at these works from a purely formal, intellectual perspective is that it tends to distance their function from the deeper spiritual and philosophical power with which they were originally invested. The Western eye tends to see works of art as objects, not as actual spiritual entities. In their original context, these objects had spiritual authority and cosmological resonance. They were considered living, active, vital agents of social cohesion, religious and philosophical authority, powerful objects for spiritual communication necessary not only to the continuation of culture but to life itself. What we see as patina and texture are layers of ritual substances applied daily to maintain spiritual balance in the world. Eccentric shapes acknowledge the wood from which sculptures were carved, as well as fables and community stories, paying homage to myth and daily life.
Yet, as much as these objects embody cosmological reality they are rarely removed from the mundane, temporal realm. Human fertility is linked philosophically, spiritually, and matter-of-factly with agricultural fertility and the survival of the group. There's a certain poetic nature to the African tendency to invoke the personal, social, and spiritual all at once, ironically evident in the scholarly descriptions that accompany the objects. My personal favorite, a Luba bowl bearer, holds chalk for anointing oneself because "Chalk is 'surrogate moonlight' and its white color stands for the benevolence and accord of the spirit world, which oversees the well-being of the kingdom and its inhabitants." Whether your interest is sculptural, cultural, or spiritual, this exhibition respects the power of African art and the viewer's capacity to draw from it. •