Art that conceals and reveals

May 26, 1994|By Chezia B. Thompson

THE WALTERS Art Gallery's current exhibit, "Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals," in a sense marks a coming of age of African art in Western museum culture.

Though many of the objects will be familiar to museum goers --ceremonial masks and sculpture in wood, metal or stone, weapons, decorative cloth, murals and other sacred objects -- the curators have organized the objects not in visual terms but as "markers" that delineate the role of secrecy in African societies.

The curators define secrecy in African art as a form of paradox. "Although the content of a secret may be guarded and concealed," writes curator Mary H. Nooter in the catalog that accompanies the show, "the secret's existence is often flaunted."

Ms. Nooter suggests that in African societies the content of a secret often is less important than the use of secrecy as a strategy for conferring rights, obligations and privileges among members of the group.

This perspective also allows the curators -- and the museum viewer -- to consider the extent to which we can understand another culture, particularly one which selectively disseminates knowledge that is considered secret. Both the exhibition and the catalog demonstrate the ability of African societies to hide critical knowledge from their members as well as from Western investigators.

Many of the objects may be seen as instructional aids to disseminate knowledge to a ''prepared learner'' or initiate. Since knowledge in Africa, as elsewhere, is power, the certainty that it can be encoded and presented to succeeding generations of initiates insures the continuity of the information as well as the commmunity that monitors its transmission.

For instance, one of the objects in the exhibit is a so-called "memory board," an African counting device that consists of rows of markers similar to an abacus. The board is an ancient device for preserving information about one's tribe or clan. Initiates were taught to use the board in accordance with a system designated by the clan. But once the system was mastered, the board could be used to decode secret information in the systems of other clans as well.

The curators of the show have gone to some lengths to avoid the traditional Eurocentric bias that colors many interpretations of African art. For example, the curators acknowledge that most of the objects present here were not considered "art" -- at least in the Western sense -- by the Africans who created them. They were instead objects that played a social role in the organization of these societies as markers of secret knowledge.

The curators also suggest an interesting paradox: The cultural imperialism of the West may ultimately have given rise to its own antithesis, in the sense that it made possible recognition of the "universality" of African art as well. Since secrecy is a universal human concern, the art that represents it speaks in some sense to people everywhere, across barriers of language, culture and religion. In confronting the role of secrecy in Africa, the Westerner viewer is also asked to consider the role of secrecy in his own culture.

For example in Africa, as in the West, secrecy is used as a means both to render certain kinds of knowledge inaccessible and to dispense "false" knowledge in order to maintain the legitimacy of political and social authorities.

In the West, the most commonly held notion of secrecy involves the withholding of knowledge in the interest of maintaining power and control. The same idea underlies the understanding of secrecy revealed in the remark of a Dangme elder from Ghana quoted in the catalog: "None ile olie dze none ike peo" -- which roughly translates as "what I know that you ought to know but do not know is what makes me powerful."

On another level, African art may be seen as a form of bearing witness to the necessity of keeping the soul intact by preserving an ontology that links the possession of secret knowledge with the exercise of power. This link has been carried over among African Americans in the New World as well. It is evident in many of the religious practices that mark the African adaptation to Western Christianity as well as in African American music and dance. Thus the African American confronting this exhibit of "art that conceals and reveals" may well experience not so much a discovery of alien "secrets" as a rediscovery of his or her own African-ness and the spiritual bonds that still link us to distant ancestors.

Chezia B. Thompson teaches writing at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

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