Show of African objects reveals the many uses of secrecy in art and life

May 01, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

The first idea to get rid of is that secrets are bad.

the West we tend to think of secrets as negative and sinister," says Mary H. Nooter, curator of "Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals," opening today at the Walters Art Gallery. "In Africa that really isn't the case at all. Knowledge is something that one has to be prepared for; the strategy of secrecy insures that people receive knowledge at the appropriate moment or many appropriate moments in a lifetime."

The second idea to forget is that secrets will be revealed at this show. "The purpose is not to reveal . . . secrets . . . but to show that there are secrets and what kinds of secrets there are," Ms. Nooter says.

"Secrecy" is a show of about 100 objects drawn from many African countries, including Zaire, Gabon, Mali, the Republic of Congo and Cote d'Ivoire. It comprises works of art that both preserve secrets and proclaim their existence, such as carved doors to places where only the select may enter and know the secrets within or articles of clothing covered with objects whose meaning only the wearer knows.

"There is a paradox here," writes the curator in the exhibition catalog. "Although the content of a secret may be guarded and concealed, the secret's existence is often flaunted. To own secret knowledge, and to show that one does, is a form of power. One function of art in Africa, then, is to act as a visual means for broadcasting secrecy -- for publicly proclaiming the ownership of privileged information while protecting its contents."

A traveling show that originated at the Museum for African Art in New York, "Secrecy" was organized by Ms. Nooter, the museum's senior curator, and opened last year when the museum moved to new quarters in the city's Soho district.

The idea for the show sprang from Ms. Nooter's field work in Zaire as well as discussions with colleagues who think secrecy is an idea that's currently "in the air," the curator says.

"I think it has to do with the intellectual current of the times. In the postmodern era, we no longer believe that we can know everything in the way that positivists of the modern era proposed that we could," says Ms. Nooter. "Secrecy is a concept that allows us to think about knowledge that isn't entirely accessible. And thinking about secrecy in art leads us to thinking about secrecy in our own lives and culture. How is secret knowledge transmitted? Can we ever know the secrets of our own culture?"

And our own culture, though considered unusually open, also has secrets. "Newspapers are full of references to secrecy in different domains -- science, government, private scandals and whatever," says Ms. Nooter. "It's a universal."

The kinds of secrets found in African societies, as represented by works in the show, have parallels in other cultures, she says.

"There are bocio [small sculptures] from Benin that are related to personal kinds of secrets. They're used for therapy purposes; they're cathartic.

"At the other extreme, we look at political, communal kinds of secrecy. There are architectural boundaries, such as the facade of a chief's house. The idea there is, the chief is the ultimate protector of knowledge that affects the community, and that that boundary is a protector of knowledge.

"Some secrecy relates to gender. There are textiles made by women, and the patterns are communicated by certain women, but not all women. . . . Other textiles contain information that's sacred or secular; it may be something as simple as recipes or healing cures for common ailments."

All of these have parallels, Ms. Nooter says.

"Psychology is doing the same sorts of things as the bocio. Medicine deals with the same kinds of issues as the textiles. [African political] examples don't differ a lot from [Western] classified information. Secrecy is worldwide."

The show is organized in five sections. The first, called the visual language of secrecy, deals with the different ways in which the fact of secrecy is conveyed, such means as coding, accumulation and containment.

In addition to textiles, coding is often found on sculptural carving and painting. A sculpture of a seated figure from Zaire has surface patterns carved into it relating to secrets of the power of chiefs. A mask from Burkina Faso has its code painted on it.

Bocio figures bear accumulations of such items as twine and organic matter referring to personal secrets. A seated sculpture of a human figure from the Republic of Congo has within it a closed cavity that contains the breath of an ancestor.

Secrets are both announced and kept by means of physical and social boundaries. The second section of the show contains doors and masks that protect the secrets of those behind them. Its centerpiece consists of four panels that formed the perimeter of a dance platform on which only certain members of the Matambu warrior association of Zaire could dance.

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