You don't have to be an academic drum-beating musicologist to make some intriguing if speculative connections between the patterning of African art and the evolution of American jazz.
An exhibit opening Sunday at the Walters Art Gallery, "African Improvisations: Textiles From the Indianapolis Museum of Art," puts African textiles before your eyes and recorded American jazz in your ears. It's a tantalizing exhibition idea, but you may walk away feeling as if you've been to a jazz club where the band played a too-short set of inadequately introduced pieces. Even if the basic premise behind the show is sound, there isn't nearly enough follow through.
While European textile designs are generally characterized by regular patterns, the West African peoples represented in this show tend to favor more asymmetrical designs. Strike one against this exhibit is that we're denied a simple side-by-side hanging comparison of a typical European design motif and a markedly different African one.
By way of stating the asymmetrical case, though, African textiles often have a great deal of improvisatory variety within an overall pattern, and their alternating bands or blocks of color do make for a syncopated rhythm of sorts. The Dogon tribe from Mali, for instance, uses black and white checkerboard patterns that may in a whimsical (if not exactly scholarly) way remind you of piano keys.
But if there is a real cultural connection to be made between African textiles and American jazz, the wall-mounted text blocks next to the hanging textiles don't go much beyond what you just read above. And the absence of a catalog for the exhibit only makes matters worse.
There are yet more strikes against this show. These textiles were originally used as clothing and not hung flat against a wall. They're often quite beautiful hanging at the Walters, to be sure, and from a conservation standpoint it probably makes sense, too. There also are photographs showing their everyday use. Still, it would have been nice if at least a few of the textiles could have been draped to suggest how the lively patterns looked when around a person.
"African Improvisations: Textiles From the Indianapolis Museum of Art" runs through May 26.