In scale and depth, Baga show is as big as life Review: Exhaustive study of an African people and art makes its presence felt at the BMA.

February 03, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

You cannot properly appreciate the art of the Baga peoples of West Africa unless you see it in full dress and in action. Among the many virtues of "The Art of the Baga" at the Baltimore Museum of Art is that it allows you to do both.

Walk into the first gallery and there are two serpent headdresses of impressive height -- brightly colored and sinuously curved, they alone reach more than 7 feet. But like other important Baga figures, the serpent sculptures are used with costumes of cloth and grass in dance rituals. The two in this gallery are installed with costumes falling from them like skirts, and thus reach a height of about 13 feet. When displayed on a platform, these are truly impressive.

And in this gallery and elsewhere are videos of the Baga performing their dance rituals, headdresses in place. The sights and sounds of these dances provide an essential element of the exhibit, for they are proof that these works were not made to be looked at sitting still, but in motion, at the center of the lives of the people who created them.

The show presents its subject admirably. The more than 100 works -- ranging from monumental-sized sculptures to diminutive pieces a few inches long -- are handsomely installed on platforms and in cases that show each object off to advantage. Individually, each has room enough to make itself felt, but collectively they become a community notable for their color, their diversity and the creativity they give evidence of. The Baga are a people who have renewed themselves through their art at each stage of their history, and it shows. Using texts and labels, curator Frederick Lamp tells the story of the Baga people themselves. When we leave the exhibit, we have not only seen the art -- we know where it came from and why it was made and what it means.

Lamp, the museum's curator of the arts of Africa, the Americas and Oceania, has worked on this project for more than 10 years. He has repeatedly visited the Baga in their homeland on the coast of Guinea, and he has brought together works of Baga art from more than 60 institutions and private collections on three continents. Perhaps the best thing one can say about the exhibition and Lamp's accompanying book is that they are worth all that time and effort.

This is the first time the history of the Baga has ever been told to the world at large. A people small in number (35,000 to 40,000 in all), living along a stretch of the Guinea coast, they have traditionally been all but powerless and were frequently subjugated by others from both Africa and Europe. Their art has been the most important product of their civilization, and it reflects the stages of their history.

The tradition is that they lived inland long ago, and migrated to the coast, bringing their most important spiritual beings with them in the form of sculptures: the a-Tshol, a bird-headed figure that is the creation god; the Banda, a composite of human, animal and architectural elements that reflects them as a community; the a-Mantsho-ne-Tshol, or serpent headdress that is a clan figure.

Resettling on the coast, the Baga created the D'mba or Nimba, the feminine ideal that remains the best-known of their works among international collectors. Under colonization by the French, the horse (which they had never seen before) entered their lives and their art, becoming a symbol of authority. And they created the Sibondel, a box-like figure with a hare at the front and people inside, that stood for getting the best of oppressors. Later, under Muslim influence, came the al-Brak, a similar boxlike sculpture but now fronted with a representation of Mohammed's horse.

Many of the Bagas' works were taken from them or destroyed over the years, both for collecting purposes and to discourage their traditional ritual in favor of Christianity or Islam. Today, in large part thanks to Lamp's interest, they are rediscovering their traditions, re-creating works of art from the past and adding new figures.

By explaining Baga history, the show gives depth and context to the pieces we see. Among other things, this stands as an example of an exhibit that gets the most out of its subject and at the same time does the most for it.

'Art of the Baga'

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through April 13

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 to 18

Call: (410) 396-7100

Pub Date: 2/03/97

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