African Art: Its Beauty, Form, and Function

Article excerpt

African Masterworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts

Essays by Michael Kan and Roy Sieber

Text by David W. Penney, Mary Nooter Roberts, and Helen M. Shannon Smithsonian Institute Press 180 pp., $34.95 The Western world's appreciation of traditional African art has grown and deepened throughout the 20th century. On its face, it seems ironic that this development coincides with the disruption by foreign influence (often but not always from the Western world) of the very African cultural beliefs and practices that brought these "works of art" into existence in the first place. These outside influences - often religious and of the missionary stripe - have been opposed to exactly the same "primitivism" (as it is perceived by non-Africans) that appeals so strongly to the modern Western art world. Indeed, it was often the fact that African art was so completely alien to Western art and its religious roots that made it seem radical, daring, and enigmatic to 20th century pioneers of modern art such as Matisse, Picasso, or Modigliani. The result of one continent's long tradition appeared utterly modern to another; it provided a basis for upsetting a tired conventionalism. Yet interestingly, the fetishistic systems of African witch doctors, for example, were as much anathema to orthodox Christian missionaries in Africa as they are to more recent waves of religious persuaders from the world of Islam. As the outsiders' ideas have taken root, many of the carved works that Africans once believed to be invested with magical potency - either benign or malignant - have become irrelevant to their very creators. (Although even when still considered powerful, they were prone to be discarded - and replaced with a frank disregard for their importance as "permanent" material objects.) Roy Sieber, an American authority on African art, points out that wood has long been the "medium of choice for most sculptural art of Africa." He adds that unlike "stone or metal, wood is easy prey to the climate and insects. "With few exceptions, the life span of a wooden object, even when carefully protected, was limited to a generation or two. Once it had succumbed to the elements, it had to be replaced.... "The preciousness we attribute to the works is our evaluation, for the African owners and users, despite their respect and often awe of them, were more practical minded." Sieber writes this in a thought-provoking essay for a fine book, "African Masterworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts." As this book's elegantly photographed and lucidly presented plates indicate, Detroit is the proud owner of one of America's finest collections of African art. African art has become a subject of academic study and aesthetic admiration in the Western world. And the history of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection demonstrates how attitudes have changed in the last century: What were at first seen as "ethnographic materials" or "exotica" - the 19th century equivalent of the "curiosities" accumulated by antiquaries and travelers in earlier centuries - have now taken their revered place in Western art galleries such as the DIA. …