Artists' works defend traditional architecture ART OF AFRICA

April 02, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

A boudramane's sculptures take their cue from African

architecture, but they don't stop there. A house's straw roof may serve as a head of hair as well, a row of windows may double as eyes and nostrils in a facade that's also a face. As for his visual-verbal puns, horn-like shapes are meant to imply both animal horns and musical horns.

"My sculptures are [about] protecting and defending traditional architecture in Africa," says the artist, who goes by one name only. But, he adds, "they are about other things which excite people and give them joie de vivre, such as dance."

Aboudramane is one of two artists represented in the exhibit "Home and the World: Architectural Sculpture by Two Contemporary African Artists" now at Morgan State University.

Hailing from Ivory Coast and now living in Paris, Aboudramane creates small-scale works that combine references to African architecture and art with the products of his own fertile imagination. The resulting works possess great charm as well as depths of meaning gained from the forms and symbols the artist uses.

"They are what passes through my head, the things that are most important to me, things that are on the verge of disappearing," he says.

"It's very important to present African subjects to people outside Africa, in the United States and elsewhere."

The other "Home and the World" artist is Bodys Isek Kingelez, of Zaire, whose wildly colorful building models are as modernist-derived as Aboudramane's are traditionally inspired. At their most elaborate, they look like blends of art deco resort palaces, futuristic cityscapes, postmodernist appropriations and pinball machines, and they mock the modern architecture largely imposed on Africa by outsiders.

"Home and the World" was originally organized by the Museum for African Art in New York. The Contemporary, Baltimore's museum without walls, has brought it to the James E. Lewis Museum at Morgan. The Contemporary's curator/educator, Lisa Corrin, has enhanced the show by adding both African art and local works that play off the show's architectural theme. This multi-layered approach is calculated to reach the widest possible audience.

"When I saw this show in New York, I thought it would be perfect for Baltimore, with its emphasis on neighborhoods whose architecture reflects their identities," says Corrin. "It's also pertinent to where Baltimore fits in the global community. The show is about African vs. global identity, and what you gain and lose as part of global identity."

One need only contrast the Baltimore Inner Harbor's contemporary architecture, which might be found anywhere, with the traditional Baltimore architecture of the Mount Vernon area a few blocks away to understand the conflict between global and traditional identities taking place in America.

"I also thought [the show] was pertinent to the issue of architectural preservation in places like Appalachia, which is losing its history," says Corrin. "To make the relationship to Maryland concrete, we organized two workshop projects, one with the School for the Arts in Baltimore and one with Friendsville in far northwestern Maryland."

At the School for the Arts, a group of juniors and seniors studied both African architecture and how the architecture of their own neighborhoods reflects their cultural identity. Then, working with instructor Volker Schoenfleiss, each student made an "ideal" building that reflected or expressed himself or herself. A skyscraper, a shrine and a stadium are among their works on view at Morgan.

In Friendsville, a group of students and adults worked with artist Don Cook to create works that, Ms. Corrin says, reflect what was built in the town. Among their works on view at Morgan are models of the town's theater, its general store and its bandstand. "These are nostalgic repositories that they see as history disappearing and that they are anxious to protect," Corrin says.

Corrin also wanted an African component, one reason for showing the exhibit at Morgan. In a room adjacent to the main gallery, she and Lewis Museum acting director Gabriel Tenabe have put on view traditional African artworks and architectural elements from the Petty Collection of African art housed at Morgan -- door panels from Nigeria, masks from Zaire, a door latch from Ivory Coast, and so on. And Corrin has added a brief, repeating slide show on African architecture -- traditional, colonial and modern -- selected from the Eliot Elisofon photography collection at Washington's National Museum of African Art.

It's good for Morgan to have the exhibit there, Tenabe thinks. "At Morgan we have a graduate program in architecture, and this is an opportunity for our students to see forms from Africa with an element of the traditional in them. Also, we have been thought of for a long time as a predominantly black institution, but we are not an island. We like to collaborate with other museums and institutions in Maryland."

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