In D.C., a taste of varied African art


August 05, 2007|By HOLLAND COTTER | HOLLAND COTTER,New York Times News Service

African art has it all: beauty, brio, inventiveness, moral gravity, emotional depth, practicality, sensuality and humor. It's hot and cool, high and low, chastening and consoling, endlessly varied, surprising always.

So why do our big museums still give us so few African shows? And why, when they do, are those shows so often packaged the same way? Third-tier Western artists get solo retrospectives; entire African cultures are squeezed into art-of-a-continent surveys.

Many such surveys are collection samplers, the only thematic thread being the taste or money of a single owner or institution. They are at least as much about the Western market as about African art. And given the current sluggish cultural climate, this model probably won't change soon.

African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection at the National Museum of African Art in Washington is made up of 88 traditional sculptures and masks from the several hundred acquired by the New York real estate developer Paul Tishman and his wife, Ruth, from the 1950s to the 1980s.

The Tishman collection was widely exhibited in those decades. A generation of art historians grew up with it. A canon of "classical" African art was in part shaped by it. In 1982 the Tishmans sold the material to the Walt Disney Co., thinking it would find a permanent home in an African pavilion at Epcot in Florida. The pavilion was never built. Two years ago, Disney gave the bulk of the collection - certain outstanding objects had already been dispersed - to the National Museum of African Art.

With more than 500 works, the gift is exceptionally large. It is also very uneven. But where it's great, it's great. African Vision is about greatness. It presents itself as a "masterpiece" show: clean installation, scant information, one stand-alone treasure after another.

The Tishmans often went for top of the line, and some of their earliest buys are the best. Like many Westerners, they loved the quasi-naturalist Benin court art of Nigeria and bought well in it. And they were lucky with ivories.

Amazing things came their way, from a late-15th-century hunting horn from Sierra Leone with Portuguese coats of arms in relief to a 16th-century saltcellar that has images of two nude, winged males with mohawk haircuts on either side.

These figures may or may not be angels; they are certainly extraterrestrial. So, by the look of it, is the serene young man with ash-white skin in a wood sculpture from Madagascar. Anyone who savors the subtleties of archaic Greek art will love him. Yet the artist who carved him might be shocked to find him in a museum. Sculptures like this were made to be placed outdoors near graves, where time and weather would wear them away.

We can only speculate about what this image did, or meant, or who made it, or exactly where in Madagascar it came from. African art in the West has traveled huge distances and through many hands on its way to auction houses, living rooms or museums. Evidence of origins and function was often lost en route. Sometimes it was selectively stripped away as objects were cleaned up to assume their modernist masterpiece roles.

At the same time less familiar, less "beautiful" images were pushed to the backs of shelves or discarded altogether. Collections and canons and values were formed by this kind of editing. The Tishman collection was, and it is a crucial aspect of its history, and the proper subject of a collection show.

With the Tishman holdings - a loamy jumble of the good, bad and odd - now in its hands, the National Museum of African Art is in an ideal position to scrutinize this history, to turn a masterpiece show into a think piece, and a timely one at that, with talk of the art market and its manipulations so much in the news.

But only the exhibition catalog written by Christine Mullen Kreamer takes on the critical task, and even then does so discreetly. The show itself toes the old hard line. Collectors are benign heroes; art magically appears in their hands from nowhere, or rather from a vague somewhere called Africa, for our entertainment.

`African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection'

Through Sept. 7, 2008

WHERE: National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave., S.W., Washington

ABOUT THE EXHIBIT: It features objects that have never been exhibited or published. The Walt Disney-Tishman collection includes unique and rare works of traditional African art from throughout sub- Saharan Africa.

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