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Boston Museum first curator cast an eye toward sub-Saharan African art 


Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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Boston, Massachusetts 02115-5523

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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.

That categorization lingered longer in Boston than in other major American cities: Neither the Museum of Fine Arts nor the Harvard University Art Museums did much in the way of collecting or exhibiting African art.

That's changing. The biggest move recently is the MFA's hiring of its first curator of sub-Saharan African art, Christraud M. Geary. She's no tyro in the field: She comes from a 13-year stint at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Only a few months into the job, she has already reinstalled the MFA's African gallery, begun a Friends of African and Oceanic Art group, and cultivated local collectors. Yes, there are some.

The reinstallation is so subtle that many visitors might not even notice it. But it counteracts several stereotypes. One is the notion that the identities of the makers of African art are unknown: Geary has a case with objects all labeled with the artists' names. She's added more color photographs of objects in use -- because these works weren't meant to be locked under glass, as they are in museums. And she has arranged many objects angled away from the wall rather than parallel to it, the better to suggest three-dimensionality.

Geary says there is critical mass at last in the Boston area when it comes to African art. She cites the city's well-established Hamill Gallery of African Art and the Hurst Gallery in Cambridge, and newcomers including the Frederick Scott Gallery in Sudbury, all showing African art. Small museums devoted to the subject are also springing up around New England -- Geary mentions the Museum of African Tribal Art in Portland, Maine. One of the areas of expertise of the new director of the Harvard Art Museums, Thomas Lentz, is African art.

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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