It's African, But Imbued With Our Idea of Art

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

The exhibition is called "African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection." It's on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.

At first it seems as clear-cut as any show could be: a survey of great treasures from a famous collection of art drawn from another continent.

There's a three-foot-tall wood figure, carved in Madagascar perhaps as much as a century ago, whose well-muscled arms and torso look stunningly natural. It's not far at all from the striding boys sculpted in ancient Greece.

There's a stylish, almost abstract "shrine figure," made by the Baga peoples of what is now Guinea, that combines features of a human head and of a long-beaked bird, and has an eight-legged stool for a body.

There are animal masks that draw on the essences of antelopes, crocodiles and elephants. (The elephant mask, by carvers from the Guro people of today's Ivory Coast, condenses the big beast into a peaceable object less than four inches wide.)

And there's an ivory saltcellar made about 500 years ago by Benin royal carvers, in what is now Nigeria, for trade with Portugal. The carvers caught on to Renaissance European tastes for twisting nudes, and then stuck wings onto their naked bodies to make them into haloed angels. (Though they seem to have interpreted the striated halo of your typical Christian angel, seen perhaps in some European print, as the mohawk of a punk rocker.)

Eighty such objects, to see and enjoy. But looking just a little deeper, the show turns out to be fiendishly complex.

Even its straightforward-sounding title hints at trouble underneath. The "Vision" part's okay: It hardly means a thing. And the "Walt Disney-Tishman" bit isn't so hard to parse: The objects were collected in the 1960s and '70s, mostly, by New York millionaires Paul and Ruth Tishman, were sold to the Disney Co. in 1984, then given to the Smithsonian in 2005.

It's the words "African" and "Art" that might unsettle a reflective visitor.

Let's start with Art.

From a Western point of view, the notion works fine. The show is full of glorious sculptural objects -- heads and figures, masks and staffs, an occasional relief panel -- that make it a lot like other art displays we've seen. It's not that different from the National Gallery's displays of Rodins or Brancusis. As the exhibition catalogue points out, the Tishmans collected with those Western ideas of art in mind, so those are the kinds of objects their American and European dealers got for them.

From the point of view of the African makers and users of these objects, however, it's not clear those ideas about museum-ready art are a good fit.

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