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
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
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. …