Show can't hold all of Africa Art: Over-ambition and lack of context are crucial flaws in a beautiful but confusing Guggenheim exhibit.

June 16, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

NEW YORK -- If it weren't for the objects themselves, one could dismiss the Guggenheim's enormous African exhibit altogether; for its premise is too unrealistic and its presentation too confusing for the viewer to make much of it as a whole.

What is one to do, however, when presented with a work such as the Lydenburg Head from Eastern Transvaal in South Africa? One of seven terra-cotta heads named for the place where they were found, it dates from A.D. 500 to A.D. 700. Only about 15 inches tall, its use remains a mystery; but it has been suggested that in ritual drama the head was meant to stand for a mediating presence between the spiritual and the real worlds.

One can easily see how such an interpretation was reached, for the features balance the representational and the abstract to achieve the symbolic, and the work's austere but expressive aura reflects both temporal sorrows and ageless wisdom.

The show is crowded with such works. As one progresses up the Guggenheim's continuous ramp, the grandeur of African art presents itself at every hand. But unless you are enough of an expert on every aspect of this subject that you can see each work in its historical and cultural context, you are bound to feel more and more alienated from an exhibit so vast in its scope and so poorly realized.

If someone suggested a single exhibit surveying the art of the United States from 1776 to the present, the idea would be laughed off as much too large for a single show. If someone suggested a show covering the art of Italy from the Etruscans to the present, it would be thought a joke at best.

So one wonders exactly what to think of "Africa: The Art of a Continent," billed as "the first major survey of the artistic traditions of the entire African continent." It attempts to present, through 500 objects, the art of a continent whose history and culture may be the most complex of any on earth.

Organized by London's Royal Academy of Arts in association with the Guggenheim, the exhibit comes with distinguished credentials and carries a long list of advisory and contributing scholars.

Nevertheless, by suggesting that African art can be encompassed in any way through a single show, it misleads the viewer, serves its subject badly, and represents a step backward in the gradually, painstakingly expanding appreciation of African art.

In the era of colonization, African artworks were sent back to Europe as ethnographic artifacts, the products of "primitive" peoples not credited with an aesthetic sense.

Powerful influence

Picasso and other early modern artists discovered the power and presence of African art, and it much influenced the development of such 20th-century movements as cubism and abstraction.

But later students of the subject came to criticize the tendency of the modernists to view African art from the point of view of a Western aesthetic. They observed that the effort must be made to see it in the context of the cultural background that gave rise to its creation.

In the Guggenheim show's accompanying catalog, Suzanne Preston Blier of Harvard's Department of Fine Arts states in her essay "Enduring Myths of African Art" that the most successful exhibitions and scholarly works on African art "have been concerned not only with displaying and discussing African arts of great beauty and visual power but also with addressing important intellectual questions as well. Without such a framework to move readers and viewers to think about the objects in a new way, these powerful works too often are essentialized by implying that their main interest is a Western-derived aesthetic one."

These thoughts, however, are countered by another of the catalog's essays, "Why Africa? Why Art?" by Kwame Anthony Appiah of Harvard's department of Afro-American studies, who invites us in exactly the opposite direction: "In presenting these objects as art objects, the curators of this exhibition invite you to look at them in a certain way, to evaluate them in the manner we call 'aesthetic.' This means, as you know, that you are invited to look at their form, their craftsmanship, the ideas they evoke, to attend to them in the way we have learned to attend in art museums."

The exhibit itself, as it turns out, makes the worst of both worlds. Had it been organized according to a strictly aesthetic logic, one can imagine it divided into objects of similar form and function, regardless of origin: ritual objects, domestic objects, objects of hunting and warfare, for instance. Or objects of similar materials, as metals, woods, textiles.

Instead, there is an attempt to provide some geographical context by dividing the continent into six areas (eastern, central etc.), with a seventh division for ancient Egypt and Nubia as distinct from the section on later northern Africa which includes the same geographic area. These are then introduced in such a cursory way, in both exhibit and catalog, as to give little if any useful information on the art to come.

Complexity oversimplified

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