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.

As scholar Christa Clarke pointed out in 2003, in an essay on the exhibition of African art, many of the continent's inhabitants take their greatest aesthetic pleasures in such uncollectible creations as body painting, scarification or elaborate sculptural hairdos. Or in more ephemeral "minor" art forms such as weaving or basketry, which until recently have been less impressive to Western eyes. The "treasures" collected by the Tishmans are the gems Americans of their generation would be most likely to recognize as such, not the objects all Africans would recognize as their most significant artistic acts.

They might not even recognize some of the Tishman treasures as self-contained, self-sufficient artworks at all, meant to be seen in the kind of free-standing isolation museums inevitably show them in. Many of the masks in the show, for instance, were originally used in the context of some kind of dance or performance -- in a "masquerade," as anthropologists would say. They were props that served a very particular social or sacred function in those contexts, and would have made no sense once pulled out of them.

Other African objects were meant for the most private, exclusive rituals. The idea that total strangers, of all ages and sexes and cultures, would parade in front of them just for pleasure's sake, would have been foreign to many of the people who made and used them. Smithsonian anthropologist Edgar Krebs, who has spent time in Madagascar, explained to me that certain funerary carvings from that country were absolutely not meant to be seen at all, by anyone, after the funeral.

Many traditional African objects were crafted with huge skill and care by local geniuses, acknowledged as such for miles around. Being looked at may not have been the crucial function of those great masters' output, but looking good might help it work -- at least for those allowed to see. But there are other African objects that would not have been about good looks at all. They would have got their meaning from the potent process involved in making them, and from what was done to them afterward. "You're talking alchemy, rather than art," Krebs says about such pieces.

He cites the carelessly hewn "bocio" figures of modern-day Benin, which are collected in the west for their "bold" look. (Dealers sell them on the Internet for hundreds of dollars.) In their original context, however, they only needed to be well enough made to bear the wrapping and binding that the babalao priests put them through during their ceremonies. Likewise for some of the famous "nail fetishes" of the Kongo peoples. American art collectors may cherish the "vigor" of their spiky forms, but those coarsely rendered human figures only got nailed into as part of a social ritual, over a long span of time, not to achieve any kind of final aesthetic effect. Like other African pieces, they could be left to rot -- or passed on to nutty Western aesthetes -- once their power was spent. Krebs refers to them as "performative objects," never meant to live on to give "the aesthetic, detached pleasure" that the museum-goer takes in them.

You can write all the wall texts you want about the original functions of African objects -- and the Smithsonian's curators conscientiously do just that -- but that doesn't reverse the inevitable "artification," and aestheticization, that goes on once they enter a Western art museum. (The same thing happens with a medieval crucifix or altarpiece, of course. But because those ritual objects are part of Western culture's past, museums feel fewer qualms about finding a new, purely artistic use for them.)

If art lovers like the way these African objects look, that may not be because they were meant to be looked at, or liked, in anything like the way we're used to doing in museums. It may be because our own forms of modern art have trained us to appreciate certain qualities they have -- their formal "vigor," their "energetic" asymmetries, their "pure" lines, what we see as their almost surreal "distortions." And that may point to the central problem in declaring some of these objects art, in the terms museum-goers usually use: The particular beauty we ascribe to them -- maybe the very idea of "beauty," as we understand it -- is in our modern Western eyes as we behold them. Their makers had other things in mind, and other ways of looking at the world -- not worse, or less sophisticated, or even "more honest," or anything like that. Just different.

When we judge the "energy" of the asymmetries in a carved door panel from Gabon, for instance, that's a judgment we make, based on our own way of looking at things. It doesn't tell us how its owners might have felt about it: Would they have slapped its carver on the back, or demanded their money back and a better-centered carving on their other doors?

Art, even beauty, depends a lot on context: On how you expect an object to look, and how pleased -- or disappointed -- you are that it looks different. Would traditional Yoruba villagers recognize what some Kenneth Clark might imagine to be the "timeless beauty" of Leonardo's "Mona Lisa"? Or would they agree how much "better" it is than some work by a pupil of the master? I doubt it. They would have their own ideas about such things, every bit as valid as some Renaissance art historian's, built around a different set of premises and tastes. (My guess is that they'd find the "Mona Lisa" such a peculiar, function-free, almost pointless thing that they'd not know where to start with judging it. I sometimes feel rather the same.)

Would we get quite the pleasure that we do from this show's Yoruba carving of a kneeling woman -- or see the special "power and truth" Paul Tishman saw in it -- if artists such as Modigliani, who were deeply influenced by African masks and carvings, hadn't taught us to see its beauty? If they hadn't got us to view it as a potent, "truthful" alternative to all the dainty nudes of exhausted, artifice-filled European art? I doubt it even more.

But for all such complexities and reservations -- of which experts on African art are agonizingly aware -- we'd have to be blind not to take pleasure in the Tishman collection. I'm certain, however, that the pleasure that we get from it is essentially, inevitably a Western-style joy.

All human cultures steal and borrow from others, then use what they take up to their own ends. It helps keep cultures vital.

The Tishman show isn't really about something out in the world called "African art." It's really about some of our own artistic thefts and loans, and about the things they bring to us.

When William Christenberry, one of Washington's best-known artists, displays a grid of rusted old snuff signs on the gallery wall -- as he is doing right now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum -- it's not because the factory that made them would have thought of them as art. It's because he, and we, have ways to find artfulness in them, in the terms of other art Christenberry has made and that was made before he came along. We mostly do the same thing when we put African objects into a museum, and look at them in museum-goers' terms: We find pleasure and virtues in them -- even such qualities as "honesty" and "power" -- on our own terms, rather than according to the terms of those who made them.

* * *

If the "Art" part of "The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection" raises all these difficult issues, the "African" part can make the mind reel.

Dozens of different language groups; peoples as different as the pygmies of the Congo basin and the Masai herders of the Serengeti plains -- not to mention the modern city dwellers of Lagos and Cape Town, 3,000 miles apart; religions as different as the animism of the remote camps in the Kalahari and the Sufi Islam of Senegal; "artworks" as different as the illuminated Bibles of Ethiopia, the export ivories carved five centuries ago by Benin royal craftsmen and the animal masks of the Mossi of Burkina Faso -- how could we imagine that any single adjective could meaningfully encompass all that?

Or that the geological borders that happen to enclose a 12-million-square-mile landmass would also be the edges of a coherent mass of art or culture?

However much we might recognize that variety, when it comes to talking about "African art," or to visiting a museum dedicated to it, it's very hard not to think that there's a there, there -- that "African culture" is something worth talking about in general terms. But studying the creativity of the vast continent of Africa probably makes about as much sense as looking at what goes on in a similarly sized chunk of land running, say, from northern Norway to the southern tip of Saudi Arabia, with its far corners touching Lisbon, Moscow and Kabul. Except that our imaginary continent of "Norabia" would probably have more cultural coherence than Africa ever could.

Here's my guess about the one, absurdly superficial quality that truly unites the people we call "African" -- or at least those who live south of the Sahara, who made all the African art the Tishmans bought. The very top layer of their skin happens to have rather more pigment in it than their European "discoverers" were used to seeing. That, more than anything else, is what gave those people the unifying identity that white, Western museum culture has tended to see in them.

"What has come to be known as African art has largely been the product of Western imagination," as Clarke put it in her essay. It's a display of Western notions of a fictional place that we've dubbed "Africa," based on our own peculiar desires, tastes and prejudices, and of some stuff called "art" that we've imagined coming from it. The objects are great, there's no doubt of that. But in some peculiar sense, once they're brought to a museum here, they're ours rather than Africa's.

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