A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
African spirit in sculptures
By Joanna Shaw-Eagle Published November 27, 2004
You may sense you're walking with spirits when you visit the "Treasures" exhibit at the National Museum of African Art, the centerpiece of the museum's yearlong 25th-anniversary celebration.
The exhibition's sculptures were created by people as diverse as the Yoruba of Nigeria and Dogon from Mali for a range of elaborate rituals celebrating a multitude of spirit forces.
African artists believed spirit forces surrounded them in the sky, sun water and earth. They created simplified and intensified sculptural forms for use in communicating with ancestors, acting as guardians, encouraging human and agricultural fertility and guiding sacrificed humans and animals to their afterworlds. Human anatomy often was exaggerated in this work to the point of abstraction.
Three of the exhibit's "Reliquary Figures" from Gabon, for example, have open, tilted squares for bodies. The artist divided their faces into curved and vertical elements of copper and brass. Strips of upwardly progressing copper rings decorate the standing base and face. Three tall female figures stand near the entry to the museum's recently renovated main gallery.
The first and oldest is the 15th-century female "Figure" from the Dogon people. Despite its age and deteriorating, driftwoodlike wood, it was made to stretch and twist up to the sky. Looking at us directly, the figure is a remarkable portrait of focused energy. Five centuries elapsed between the creation of the Dogon image and the erect, 20th-century woman nearby, carved by the Lobi people from Burkina Faso. With its exaggerated planar divisions of hair, face and eyes, elongated arms and body and slightly bent legs, this is an idiosyncratic, stylized form.
The shiny blackness of its dark wood characterizes the third of these figures, a 19th-century female from the Senufo people of the Cote d'Ivoire. It's even more stylized than the Lobi figure. The room's diffuse light picks up its squeezed-inward qualities, such as the geometrical body parts of striated hair atop the head, jutting conical breasts, thin pipelike body and elongated neck. Eyes set so closely that they appear crossed add to our feelings that this is more an arresting design than a naturalistic representation of the human body.
From these three figures and other superb examples of African art from the 15th to the 20th century, you'll see that "Treasures" is no ordinary exhibition. New African Art Museum director and exhibit curator Sharon F. Patton resolved to focus solely on the works.
The exhibit lets the art speak for itself, in much the same tradition as early 20th-century exhibitions of African art in this country," Miss Patton says. "We wanted to give today's visitors the opportunity to view the art without a lot of heavy interpretation."
Fair enough, but the display needs some informational labels. For example, the separate "Masks" section should be denoted as such. A map of continental Africa would be welcome, and the exhibit badly needs a time line. The exhibition is mounted in the museum's impressive new 10,000-square-foot main gallery, part of its first-ever redesign. Softly colored and lighted -- two smaller galleries are attached to the main one -- it has a mystical ambience. Assistant museum design director Alan Knezevich created shadows from framed, semisheer scrimmed room dividers that fall across the floor and ceiling.
African colors of yellow-gold and citrus-green complement the carved wood's darknesses. Nine layers of lights are gradated from bottom to top so that figures resemble ghosts emerging from darkness. Such a display is essential to the success of an exhibition of this kind. The stylized "Bird Mask" in the "Masks" section seems to spring from the shadows into the light. Another "Bird" in the main gallery stands erect in its shadows. An elaborate "Helmet Mask With Mother of Twins Figure" by the artistically talented Yoruba people of Nigeria gets the full lighting treatment in the "Masks" gallery.
By contrast, the comparable "Woman of Twins" figure by the noted 20th-century Yoruba sculptor Areogud in the main space is simpler and more dimly lit. Full lighting complements the brilliant gold of the entry room with its dramatic wooden palace doors created by early 20th-century Yoruba sculptor Olowe of Ise, one of the few artists in this show to have been honored with a one-person exhibit at the museum. Farther back in the central gallery, the figures become more threatening and elaborate. One has a mirror in his stomach and carries bands of cloth. Another, probably the most sensational in the show, is the huge "Figure" from the Songye people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Made of a curious but effective amalgam of wood, brass, iron, horn, glass beads, cowrie shells, leopards' teeth, gourds and reptile skins, it's an apparition that may revisit you in your nightmares.
Miss Patton concentrated on finding and showing some of the best traditional African art in the United States by borrowing from private collections as well as tapping the African Museum's own collection. The exhibition is a marvelous aesthetic experience but could use a few clues to guide us.
WHERE: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Aug. 15
TICKETS: Free PHONE: 202/633-4600
WEB SITE: http://www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/treasures/index.html
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