Beautiful artworks hide behind theme of 'Secrecy' exhibit

May 04, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

On entering the softly lighted precincts of "Secrecy" at the Walters Art Gallery, you are greeted by six masks stunning in their form and decoration. Five of them are from the Songye people of Zaire; they display convex and concave curves in dramatic opposition, incised surfaces whose striped patterns move dynamically across the facial planes, and bold, stylized features.

The sixth is a mask from the Vuvi people of Gabon, its shieldlike form punctuated by an almost abstract set of features: rectangular mouth under triangular nose flanked by oval eyes and surmounted by chevron-shaped brows.

It would be hard to encounter works of art more striking in their visual impact, but that's not what "Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals" is really about. A highly didactic exhibit, it examines a cultural phenomenon that is both African and worldwide -- for secrecy can be found everywhere.

Organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, "Secrecy" approaches its subject with profound respect. It makes clear that it wants to explore how works of art both reveal that secrets exist and conceal what they are. It does not try to reveal secrets of the many African peoples these works come from.

It achieves its aim in five thematic sections: First, there is a visual language of secrecy, and it is spoken through such means as coding, accumulation and containment. Second, works of art, such as masks and doors, mark secrecy's boundaries, both physical and social. Third, works of art identify their owners, whether kings or hunters, healers or priests. Fourth, works of art are used to transmit secrets, in initiation ceremonies. Finally, differing interpretations of works of art by those outside a culture indicate how difficult it is to be sure we understand another culture.

The show's purpose and accomplishments are admirable, and it has received the kind of thoughtful, handsome installation one has come to expect from the Walters. But it does leave the viewer with reservations.

Not all of its sections are equally effective. The one on transmission contains a number of works associated with initiations, but doesn't explain how knowledge is transmitted as well as it might, probably because to do so would involve revealing secrets.

This is a cross-cultural show, not one designed to deal with individual cultures in depth. Inevitably, seeing works from many different cultures involves loss as well as gain. That becomes especially apparent in the last section, in which all the works are from the Dogon people of Mali. Even though there are only about a half-dozen, seeing them together deepens our appreciation of them as works of art, where elsewhere the tendency has been to see objects more as illustrations of the points "Secrecy" has to make.

In fact, throughout the show it is well to go beyond those points consciously and allow the objects to communicate the fullness of their beauty and strength. For whether it's the silent dignity of Yoruba masks from Nigeria, the delicate carvings on Luba staffs from Zaire, the character indicated in the face of a seated Bembe figure from the Republic of Congo, or any of so many more examples that could be cited, these works have much to offer on many levels.

ART REVIEW

What: "Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through July 17

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, students and 18 and under free

Call: (410) 547-9000

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