African Art

By Clarke, Christa | Art Journal, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

African Art


Clarke, Christa, Art Journal


Africa: The Art of a Continent, Preface by Cornel West. Introduction by Tom Phillips. Essays by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Peter Garlake. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1995. Distr. Prestel, New York. 620 pp.; 801 color ills., 53 b/w. $75.00

Africa: The Art of a Continent, 100 Works of Power and Beauty. Introduction by Cornel West. Essays by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ekpo Eyo, Peter Mark, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Suzanne Preston Blier. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1996. Distr. Harry N. Abrams, New York. 191 pp.;100 color ills., 10 b/w. $39.95; $24.95 paper

Exhibition schedule: Royal Academy of Arts, London, October 4, 1995-January 21, 1996: Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, March 1-May 1, 1996; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 7-September 29, 1996.

Ever since objects from Africa first attracted the attention of modernist artists at the beginning of this century, museums and galleries devoted to avant-garde expression have played a pivotal role in legitimizing African material culture as an art form for Western audiences. As early as 1914, Alfred Stieglitz championed the aesthetic merits of African sculpture at his Gallery 291 in New York through installations that highlighted form over ethnographic content. The appreciation of African artifacts as art gained more widespread acceptance in 1935 when the Museum of Modern Art mounted African Negro Art, curated by James Johnson Sweeney. This exhibition introduced objects from sub-Saharan Africa to a larger museum-going public and, in the process, established a canon of "classic" African art. While an entire field devoted to the examination of these works on their own terms quickly developed following the 1935 show, modernism has continued to mediate public perception of and interest in African art through exhibitions such as the MoMA's controversial Primitivism in 20th-Century Art of 1984. It seems fitting, then, that toward the close of the century, a modernist institution has again approached the subject, this time attempting "the first major survey of the artistic traditions of the entire continent."'

Africa: The Art of the Continent opened in New York in June 1996 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, presenting over 500 works of art from museums and private collections throughout the world. Originating at the Royal Academy in London, the exhibition, which made its debut there in October 1995, was conceived and curated by Tom Phillips, a British painter, collector of African art, and Royal Academician. Phillips's objective in organizing the exhibition was to present African art as an aesthetic equal to that of the West. The resulting show was astonishingly broad in scope, stressing not only the chronological depth of African artistic expression but also a geographical range encompassing the entire continent. At the Guggenheim-the show's sole American venue-the exhibition practically filled the building with a host of stunning works, some familiar and others exhibited for the first time. While the installation itself encouraged an aesthetic appreciation of the objects, didactic labels and contextual photographs provided a cultural framework for African art. Unfortunately, these two strategies of displaythe aesthetic and the contextual-were never integrated into the conceptual structure of the show overall and ultimately the conflict between them undermined the larger aims of this ambitious exhibition.

The story behind the conception and execution of Africa: The Art of a Continent is at least as complex as the exhibition itself, revealing the delicate ethical, political, and social issues involved in the display of African art. Phillips's initial selection of objects for the London show raised concerns about issues of African cultural patrimony, resulting in the lastminute deletion of many works scheduled to be in the exhibition. The loan of antiquities from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, for example, was barred by Islamic fundamentalists who won a court order prohibiting religious treasures from leaving the country. …

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