A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Boston Museum first curator cast an eye toward sub-Saharan African art
A historical exhibition of African maps at Wellesley College a few years ago summarized the situation: It demonstrated how Africa was gradually "erased" by 19th-century European cartographers. These mapmakers became increasingly unwilling to accept the empirical evidence of explorers who had charted mountains, rivers, and other areas of topography on grounds that their testimony was "unscientific." And so Africa became the "Dark Continent" in Western eyes, which helps explain why African art was treated in terms of ethnography.
And at the moment, there are two important shows of contemporary African art in the Boston area: "A Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa" at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury, through May 31; and "Looking Both Ways: "Contemporary Artists From Africa" at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, through June 20. Exhibitions come and go, of course. One of the significant aspects of the MFA reinstallation and the Roxbury and Salem shows is that all come with catalogs written by authorities in the field.
So African art won't be dismissed for lack of expert documentation the way African geography was a century ago.
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