Understanding African art in its proper context is an artform itself. Many of the African artefacts in Western museums and private collections were specially made for religious and other rites and ceremonies, and not necessarily to be viewed as museum pieces. This important fact was, however, lost on the people who bought, seized, looted, or trafficked the African items into Europe and elsewhere. This handicap is what a recently published catalogue by the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) in the USA, seeks to address. Osei Boateng has been reading it.
FOR CENTURIES, AFRICAN "ART" HAS THRILLED, AMAZED and inspired many non-Africans, especially European-descended people, some of whom rarely understood the significance to the original African owners of the items they were buying, seizing, looting or trafficking. Though some of the Europeans have called the African "art" or artefacts "primitive", others with more open minds have affirmed that "primitive people do not produce artwork of anything like this quality". This remark, made by a European archaeologist in 1938, was after he had been regaled by the sheer quality of copper and bronze work excavated in the Nigerian village of Igbo-Ukwu in the Onitsha area where an unsuspected civilisation, thousands of years old, was discovered by accident.
A gentleman called Isaiah Anozie stumbled across the treasures by accident in his back yard while digging a cistern at the back of his house to collect rainwater. Two feet down, he found a number of finely wrought bronze pieces. A subsequent excavation in his and his brother's compounds unearthed more bronze and copper pieces. "The artefacts were astonishing," reports Robin Walker in his book, When We Ruled. "They included fine copper chains, wristlets, profusely elaborate staff" ornaments (some decorated with coloured beads, vessels brilliantly cast in the shape of shells, drinking cups, pots, sword scabbards, pendants, a copper altar stand, and flywhisks). They demonstrated geometric exactitude and perfection of form, which led one of the bewildered archaeologists to say: "Their superb workmanship and thousand-year-old patina, with its green and purple lustre, are a wonder to behold."' Radiocarbon dating on the items established that they were made in the 9th and 10th centuries AD.
Some of the objects were associated with the burial of an important personage, an issue which is covered in depth by the Dallas Museum of Arts catalogue, tastefully titled The Arts of Africa--At the Dallas Museum of Art [DMA].
The text alongside the artefacts pictured in the DMAs impressive catalogue was written by Roslyn Adele Walker, senior curator of the Arts of Africa, Americas and the Pacific at the museum. She joined the DMA in 2003 and has furthered the growth of their African collection. She personally selected all the no objects featured in the catalogue, which are grouped under the broad themes of leadership and status; the cycle of life; decorative arts; and influences into and out of Africa.
Inaugurated in 1969, the DMAs world-renowned African art collection, with its great strength in Congo sculpture and textiles and its wide range of media and forms, now numbers almost 2,000 items. It forms a vital part of the museum's entire collection in telling the story of art from around the world.
The Arts of Africa, 320 pages long, is the DMAs first publication devoted solely to its African collection, taken both as a whole and with emphasis on many of the collection's most dazzling treasures. The collection was made possible through the generosity of the art philanthropists Margaret McDermott and her late husband Eugene McDermott, to whom the catalogue is warmly dedicated.
"Their initial gift of the Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture constitutes the foundation on which the DMAs African art collection has been built," reveals Bonnie Pitman, the DMAs Eugene McDermott director, in the foreword to the catalogue. …