Out of Africa, Artifacts Link Cultures Past and Present Guggenheim Show Traces Wealth of Tradition, Influence on Later Artists

By Carol Strickland, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 1996 | Go to article overview

Out of Africa, Artifacts Link Cultures Past and Present Guggenheim Show Traces Wealth of Tradition, Influence on Later Artists


Carol Strickland, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The celebration of African art continues throughout the Guggenheim with "Africa: The Art of a Continent." This mega-show of more than 500 works is billed as the "first major survey of the artistic traditions of the entire African continent." It departs from other exhibitions of African art by including objects from Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

As might be expected when surveying such vast terrain, from prehistory to the 20th century, the exhibition relies on the glimpse-of-glam method. Like 30-second film clips shown on Oscar night, it dazzles in flashes at the expense of coherence and depth.

Organized in seven geographical areas, the exhibition kicks off with a chunk of chipped quartz said to be 1.6 million years old. Excavated in the Olduvai Gorge by famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, the adz is thought to have been fashioned by an early hominid and is of purely antiquarian and ethnographic interest.

Not so a Stone Age hand ax from 600,000 BC. The banded ironstone is shaped like a perfect teardrop. Its tapering layers are so beautiful, it qualifies as the earliest known crafted object of aesthetic interest. Other ancient artifacts include fragments of cave drawings from 25,000 BC, with stylized antelope and human figures outlined in charcoal and ocher.

Lamentably, the examples of Egyptian art are much less impressive than objects in the permanent collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. The most noteworthy objects are two mummified cats. Each resembles a thermos bottle in shape, topped by a fabricated cat's head. Linen strips criss-cross the body in an intricate diamond pattern like a log-cabin quilt.

The most powerful objects in the show are "power figures." These multimedia sculptures are carved of wood, then "activated" by a ritual expert who inserts blades or nails into the torso to enlist spiritual forces. The vigorous carving and accumulated spikes invest the figures with a terrifying, mysterious aspect.

Masks used in rituals are also standouts, even when presented statically rather than as part of a mobile performance, combined with costumes. …

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