Chokwe: Masks truths

Art: Understanding the cultural meaning behind African works deepens a viewer's appreciation for them.

June 12, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The Chokwe people of southern Africa have lived for hundreds of years on the vast savannah at the juncture of Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. Renowned as prolific, skilled carvers, Chokwe art is the subject of a fascinating show at the Baltimore Museum of Art that opens tomorrow and runs through Sept. 5.

The galleries have been re-designed to provide context for the exhibit's more than 150 ceremonial masks, carvings and costumes -- a welcome aid to understanding these objects in terms of the meaning they hold for the people who made them.

Although African art is by now firmly ensconced in the art museum, it arrived there by a circuitous path. For a long time, the art of Africa was not considered art at all. Although Europeans began collecting African sculpture in quantity in the mid-19th century, they did so not for its aesthetic value but because of its supposed anthropological significance.

The exotic, abstract forms of African art -- of whose meaning 19th-century European colonialists, merchants and missionaries were completely ignorant -- were taken as evidence of the "primitive" nature of the conquered peoples and used to justify their exploitation. Colonial collectors shipped masks and ritual objects back to Europe by the boatload, then erected museums of ethnography in which to house them. These museums were, in effect, monuments to the plundering of the continent, much as the founding of the Louvre as a public museum, followed in the wake of Napoleon's military conquests.

The precise moment when African art ceased being mere artifact and became "art" in the Western sense can be dated. It occurred in 1907, when the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso incorporated African motifs into what was to become one of the first modernist masterpieces, "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon." Picasso's angular, abstract, almost brutal treatment of the female figures in the painting seems to have been inspired in part by his response to African sculpture, which he had been studying at the ethnographic museum in Paris.

"Les Demoiselles D'Avignon" helped lead the way to Cubism, which had a profound impact on 20th-century art. Many of the artists who helped develop it, such as the Fauvists and Picasso's great contemporary Georges Braque, saw African sculpture as a model for a new way of treating spatial relationships in Western painting and sculpture.

It was because of this close association with the early modernists that African art belatedly came to be viewed as art rather than mere artifact. Suddenly the masks and carvings that had been consigned to ethnographic museums became coveted objects to be displayed in the art museum.

There is, of course, a certain irony in the fact that African sculpture was denied recognition as art until it inspired European artists to revolutionize their own tradition. Even more odd, Picasso and his contemporaries had, in fact, only the vaguest understanding of the African art on which they based the new style.

For example, large African masks used as headdresses in ceremonial dances (such as the magnificent Baga headdress in the BMA's permanent collection) often are so heavy that they are equipped with braces or handles to allow the mask to be rested on the dancer's shoulders.

It's likely that Picasso and others -- not knowing that the handles would have been concealed under the dancer's costume -- misread these braces as foreshortened bodies. There are many examples in Picasso of large, mask-like faces attached to tiny, abstract bodies that look like a heavy mask's shoulder braces.

This points to the difficulty Western viewers still have in understanding African art in terms of its significance for the people who made it. None of the objects in this show, for example, were created for exhibition. Many of them, in fact, were expressly intended to remain hidden even from the eyes of ordinary people, except during important occasions, such as secret ritual ceremonies marking the initiation of young people into adult society. They are not supposed to be understood, except by adult members of that society.

The Western viewer can easily admire the plastic qualities of African carving, for example. But the actual meaning of the work also requires some appreciation of its ritual and ceremonial uses, just as an appreciation of a Madonna by Raphael requires us to see more than just a lovely portrait of a mother and child.

In general, the BMA has done a good job of making accessible the Chokwe show, which was organized by the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Ala. The wall texts and labels are informative and concise. Each section of the gallery also has a video monitor displaying scenes of present-day Chokwe people performing the activities -- initiation rites, ceremonial dancing, metalworking, etc. -- associated with the objects on display.

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