African Art at SAM: How Everyday Objects Become Masterpieces
by Matthew Kangas
The new installation of one-fifth of the Seattle Art Museum's entire holdings of African art may be reached in several ways in the new $85 million building. One could plan a chronological, backgrounder approach via the fourth-floor "Art of the Ancient World" galleries using the elevators. That way, Egyptian and Islamic art would preface a visit to the African section. Or, perhaps more entertainingly, take the escalators all the way upstairs and let the new riot of color, sound, film, and objects drench you in the fascinating world of African art and culture.
Ascending the fourth-floor escalator, drumbeats and chanting greet the viewer. Right away, we become part of the exhibition, as South African artist William Kentridge's 1999 film, "Shadow Procession," is projected onto us, onto the elegant glass balustrade, and onto the wall above the moving stairs. The new African art installation is no longer just about historical objects that were brought to Europe and the U.S. for our detached delectation. Past and present merge now, with Kentridge's film of moving figures reminding us of slavery roundups even before we reach the top floor.
Once at the entry to the long Boeing Gallery and its adjacent three permanent-collection viewing areas, one thing becomes clear: Action is the byword for African art, both in how the objects are newly displayed -- with videos of performances, mannequins wearing ritual costumes, and state-of-the-art "sound showers" that have discreet tapes of music and singing -- and in the African art department's ongoing educational outreach programs that stress the usability and activity-oriented origins for many of the treasures. Curator of African and Oceanic art Pamela McClusky and her colleagues have made it easy, enjoyable, and, above all, engaging to look at and learn about the rich complexities of African art.
Seattle Art Museum (along with many other American and European art museums that specialize in African art) has revolutionized African object presentation over the past 20 years. In our more sensitive, politically correct times, great efforts have been made to provide context and educational support for all the things that might appear to be confusing, mundane or incomprehensible at first glance. Besides the clever "sound showers" or aural columns that are near certain displays, explanatory labels that are not too short and not too long are helpful and, of course, visitors may borrow free audio tour guides to stop at key works with detailed descriptions. Also, in one room, African art is juxtaposed with Western art, specifically, prints, paintings, sculptures and photographs by William Hogarth, Marita Dingus, and Nick Cave, among others, to point up overlooked parallels. McClusky noted, "We already know about how African art influenced the cubists, but what about how European art influenced twentieth-century African art?"
"Our knowledge of Africa," McClusky continued in an interview, "has grown enormously over the past one hundred years. We know more, and Africa is so much more important as a continent now. Picasso knew little or nothing [about Africa], but within a century, there's so much more known about [for example] village performances that makes the cultures more complex."
Thanks to efforts by philosophers, anthropologists, art historians, and post-colonial theorists, including French intellectual giant Claude Lévi-Strauss, African societies are known to be capable of the same kinds of nuances, complicated relationships, and linguistic sophistication as Western cultures. The place of art is, unlike in the West, fully integrated and tied to everyday lives through initiation ceremonies, fertility rites, agricultural practices, and even quasi-theatrical performances that serve as satire, sex education, and ancestor worship. Crucially, the aesthetic powers of the hat, mask, chalice, chair, or fabric are only instigated by being used by a tribal member.
The clothed mannequins and tall sculpture pedestals beyond the escalators seem to populate a village with their masks, shirts, coats, dresses and headdresses from Congo, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Liberia, Guinea, and other west African nations. More than in other parts of the world, geopolitical boundaries matter less than historical tribal affiliations, a key to understanding both current conflicts and ancient ones.
Shield (Elongo), buffalo hide, goat sinew, wood, pigment, contributed by Ole Sipoi, Kenya, Seattle Art Museum General Acquisition Fund, 2000.4
Basinjom mask and gown. Cloth, wood, feathers, porcupine quills, mirrors, herbs, raffia, cowrie shells, rattle, eggshell, knife, and genet cat skin. African, Ejagham, Nigerian, Cameroon. 34 1/4 x 17 11/16 x 19 11/16'. Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.1977
Belt mask of Iyoba (Mother of the Oba) Idia, ca. 1517 - 1550. Ivory, Nigerian, Court of Benin. 4 3/4" x 2 9/16". Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.493
Prefer to look at exquisite tiny objects in glass cases? You won't be disappointed if you visit the Wright Runstad Gallery with its carefully selected examples of all-human figures in one case and all-animal figures in another. Chairs, stools, and thrones (some of which were influenced by European imports) form a central, walk-around setup in another room, reminding us that, in many African cultures, the seat does not become aesthetically powerful until someone is sitting on it.
Seven woven cloths from Ghana line a wall in the second, inner gallery. These are just part of an ongoing textile display that will change every six months. Interestingly, McClusky has found a few cloths of brilliant color that contain abstracted Islamic motifs, as in some Middle Eastern carpets. Rather than the vilified Euro-Christian missionaries, followers of Islam were much more successful at invading, conquering, and converting indigenous Africans. Their occupying role as slave traders is widely acknowledged today, but their cultural influences on African art have been underplayed. McClusky is increasingly examining non-African religions on the continent and plans future exhibitions about art from Ethiopia where some of Christianity's earliest and longest-lasting converts, the Copts, reside.
Favorite masterpieces familiar from the old building, like the carved ivory belt mask of a woman's face (c. 1500 A.D.) and a commissioned ivory salt-cellar sent to Portugal around the same time, reinforce how international contacts occurred from the Age of Exploration on. A Benin bronze plaque of royal personages also reveals how certain technologies like bronze-casting may have actually developed in Africa before they did in Renaissance Italy. How's that for upsetting outdated notions of "primitive art"?
According to McClusky, the term "world art" has replaced "primitive art" or "ethnic art," as politically correct terms. Gazing upon the riches of such civilizations as seen in the African galleries at SAM, one leaves the museum once again with a refreshing, upside-down attitude about divisions between African art, European and American art, not to mention the other areas SAM collects so strongly: Asian art, aboriginal art, and Native American art. Since the Asian and African collections practically outnumber the Western holdings, and now are seen in better, more connected contexts, visiting the new Seattle Art Museum offers a particular experience that is unique in this sense among American art museums.
MATTHEW KANGAS, independent art critic and consulting editor at Art Guide Northwest, has recently completed collection catalogues for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Cincinnati Art Museum. He is also a contributor to Art Ltd., Art in America, Ceramics Monthly, and many other publications. He lives in Seattle. Copyright © Matthew Kangas, 2007
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