Redefining Art from the Heart of Africa Landmark Show at Two New York Museums Seeks to Broaden Discussion of What Constitutes African Art Today

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IN these "politically correct" times, it is difficult for anyone to express opinions about African art (or anything African) and not be called "insensitive," "neo-colonial," or even "racist." This is because conquest historically has been central to the appreciation and evaluation of art - especially art from Africa. Conquering armies usually carted home the spoils.

Large institutions such as the British Museum own rich troves of artifacts from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. These collections of antiquities testify to the imperial legacies of European nations. More recently, African artwork considered valuable by Westerners has been imported by high-powered New York art dealers. Those works are largely the masterpieces of now-disappearing African civilizations.

In the exhibition "Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art," curator Susan Vogel has succeeded in placing virtually unknown contemporary African art in a broader context. Divided between The Center for African Art uptown and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo, the landmark show tells a story of art that is a living part of African society. It proves that contemporary African art deserves a place in the world of modern art.

In selecting the objects for display, Western opinions and academic notions about what constitutes authentic or high-quality African art did not apply. Individually, the items in the show are not necessarily masterpieces, but represent works that for the most part are readily available in Africa's thriving markets and back-alley workshops.

Ms. Vogel, executive director of The Center for African Art, has divided the work of 20th-century African artists into five rough categories: Traditional art, New Functional art, Urban art, International art, and "Extinct" art. Each has distinctive qualities and representative artists:

Traditional art, almost always sculpture, is village based. Artists create these works primarily for members of their own ethnic groups. They often serve traditional, ceremonial functions, but may use new materials. In Nigeria, the Yoruba have a high incidence of twin births and consider twins to be minor deities. When a twin dies, a carved figure is made in its memory. Originally wood was used. But today, fabric, leather, pigment, and even molded plastic and metal are often used, as in the ere ibeji doll pictured to the left.

New Functional art, according to the informative 300-page catalog accompanying the exhibition, "is art that will become traditional if it continues to be made by the next generation." Some of the show's most striking and crowd-pleasing works fall in this category. Kane Kwei, who works near Accra, Ghana, builds popular coffins that are representative of the career, or sometimes the aspirations of, the deceased. Boats, fish, onions, cocoa pods, and airplanes are some of the most sought-after models of coffins, as well as a fine Mercedes Benz that appears in the show.

Urban art is made by local artisans who typically make their living by creating signs and commercial images for small businesses. One urban artist, Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, has dedicated his career to bringing Zaire's history alive. His paintings (using flour sacks as canvas) cover events from pre-colonial days to the present and incorporate words describing the event. Cheri Samba, another Zairian artist, weaves didactic phrases in his paintings in an energetic, hybrid style that relies upon those words to make its point. …