`Crowning Achievement' of a Show: African Hats Are More Than Just Finery in That Culture of Symbolism
Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
So, what's this? A show of hats in a museum? Frivolous and funky, serious and serene, the hats in "Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Head," at the Museum of African Art through Aug. 18, aren't just any hats.
These are spiky hats, skull caps, hats made of mud, others of feathers and mirrors, still others of silver and chain-mail, some of bright orange raffia. They show the power, the status, the beauty, the vanity, of the African wearer, both today and yesterday. They state, boldly, "This is me."
Take, for example, a "Women's headdress" (ekori) from the Herero peoples of Botswana, dating to the last century. It's a curved leather cap, to which are sewn three flat, peaked leather horns with ornamental stitching. A soft, triangular skin veil, attached to the cap's front, trails down to two sheepskin tails. An ornamental leather band decorated with iron beads fastens around the cap.
Married women usually wore the leather veil rolled back off their faces. However, when a new bride went to her husband's home, she unrolled the leather veil and covered her face.
Fortunately, we can walk around the piece and savor it for the sculpture it is. But - leather sculpture? Yes, emphatically, and what a soft and sensual attraction it has in combining spiked horns with the softly rolled veil. Any craft artist today would die for such a successful exciting marriage of materials and geometry.
* * *
Artistic personal adornment is prevalent the world over, but Africans have created something very special with head decorations. True, both men and women in the West experimented with hats and headdresses. Think of Mary Stuart's heart-shaped cap, the plumed and flowered "Merry Widows" of the late 19th century, Jackie Kennedy's signature pillbox. Men have also made their mark - with the royal crowns of Europe, the warrior bonnets of the American Indians, Santa Claus' stocking cap, Gene Kelly's straw boater in "Singin' In The Rain," and the ubiquitous male baseball cap. But no Westerner can rival the sheer exuberance of these African creations.
This is a visually delicious show, and it's almost unnecessary to read the object labels. It's better just to walk through and experience the delights of these nearly 200 headdresses. The one big lack is a map of the African continent and diaspora, so that viewers could orient themselves to tribe and place. All head coverings were made in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The best place to start is with the main introductory gallery of 12 hats, including a Yoruba beaded crown, a priest's crown (aklil) of silver from Addis Ababa, a very tall fiber twisted chief's hat (mpu) from the Congo and a Sudanese chain-mail helmet. What links these objects is the unique, innovative use of natural materials and the wildly creative imagination that conceived them. …