'Artful Animals' at the National Museum of African Art

"Artful Animals" includes a mid-20th-century Chi Wara crest mask (worn like a hat) from Mali. Much of the show emphasizes the aspirational qualities of animals, such as the patience of a snake. (National Museum Of African Art Photos)
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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

If the lion is king of the jungle, then what's that rooster doing wearing his crown?

That's just one of the questions that might cross your mind -- or your child's mind -- in "Artful Animals," a hyper-family-friendly exhibition meant to delight the eye even as it challenges some of our assumptions about the depiction of animals in Africa. You'll find an early-1960s piece of commercially printed cloth from Sierra Leone that features the aforementioned flightless fowl as the mascot of the United Progress Party. See, in Africa, the top banana in the barnyard can be a symbol of leadership.

Don't expect to find the zebra and the cheetah at this show at the National Museum of African Art. It's an odd void, considering the iconic nature of those quintessentially African beasts (at least in the minds of Westerners raised on a steady diet of TV nature shows), but they just don't seem to show up in African art. At all. The exhibition takes note of the mystery without speculating why.

Frankly, you don't miss them.

There are plenty of other animals on display, large and small, familiar and not, even ones that don't actually exist. Chi Wara, a mythological creature from the Bamana culture of Mali, is part antelope, part aardvark and part pangolin (a scaly anteater). It's said to have taught the Bamana peoples to farm, since all three animals share a single attribute: digging in the dirt.

While that may not seem like much to base a supernatural being on, it highlights the importance of Africans' direct -- and at times very personal -- connection to the power of nature. Other artifacts that do the same thing include a fantasy coffin, by Ghanaian artist Paa Joe, in the shape of an elephant. Rather than being ghoulish or morbid, it projects a sense of identification with the pachyderm, another symbol of leadership, that's more fun than funereal.

Much of the show emphasizes the aspirational qualities of a particular animal, even if they're not traits we would necessarily associate with the animal. The patience of a snake. The authority of a turtle. The wisdom of a spider (shades of "Charlotte's Web").

Think of it like this: They're versions of the patronus, or guardian spirit animal, from the "Harry Potter" books. (Hermione's was an otter. Not exactly the ruler of the beasts.) But while the animals in "Artful Animals" are most often ones whose qualities we admire or want to possess -- hard work, transformation, nurturing -- they also occasionally represent qualities we may wish to avoid, such as greed or deception.

That's one idea you'll come out of "Artful Animals" with. Although Americans may look at animals from another angle than Africans, when it comes down to it, none of us is all that different from our furry, finny and feathered friends.

Artful Animals Through Feb. 21 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian) Contact: 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). http://www.nmafa.si.edu. Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission: Free. Public program: On Thursday and Aug. 7 at 10:15, 11 and 11:45 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., Kenyan storyteller Anna Mwalagho will lead a free event for families featuring songs and tales about animals, followed by a visit to the exhibition.

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