One of the richest areas for traditional African scrulptures lies within the troubled boundaries of Zaire. There is much to admire in "A Survey of Zairian Art," which opened last night at the Museum of African Art, but it may leave all but the scholars panting for some really insightful new ideas about African art.
The exhibition consists of 200 works, most of them in wood, including chairs, stools, rattles scepters and staffs, all parts of a chief's regalia. Figures meant to embody and perpetuate the spirit of ancestors range from the highly realistic (including painted glass eyes) to the highly abstract.
Several groups of masks dazzle the eye, especially a group of Pende pieces representing characters in plays which convey moral teachings, and a spectacular group of Lega masks, some of them symbols of rank within a secret society. The oldest work in the show, probably owned by an elder in such a society, is a small ivory with cowrie shells, probably 300 years old. It is rare for a wooden piece to exceed 100 years in age due to the vicissitudes of weather and insects.
One fascinating highlight on this show, though it is not explicity pointed out in the exhibition itself, is the inclusion of several works which further refute the erroneous notion that there was then no written language in Africa.
One is a particularly beautiful round and flat Teke "mask," actually a composition of symbols which can be "read" by scholars. These are ideographs which speak here, in typically metaphorical African language, of the four moments of the sun, important in Zairian art because it suggests that life never ends.
Another rather extraordinary and sophisticated example of communication is represented by a carved wooden potlide used by the women of the Woyo tribe to rebuke or criticize their husbands. Each lid is carved with figures representing a particular proverb, and understood by all.It is placed on a pot and presented to the husband at dinner, but only when several guests are present. American potshops could sell a million of them.
The exhibition was collected by Lee Bronson, who with his wife Dona and brother Robert owns the entire show.
This is not the first collection of art from Zaire to be seen in Washington. Two years ago, the government of Zaire sponsored a smaller, less comprehensive show. The present survey is important for two reasons: It introduces one of the major American collections on the subject to the public, and is a landmark for scholars. The accompanying catalogue, a hefty illustrated book, announces a new system for classifying Zairian art into eight major stylistic categories.
Despite the contributions this exhibition and its catalogue make to scholarship, however, its somewhat antique point of view is unsatisfying. For a decade now American museums have been hanging African art on the wall, darkening the room, spotlighting the objects, and focusing on their often awesome beauty.
Though this is, indeed, an improvement over the days when African art was relegated to museums of natural history and anthropology, this approach was rendered inadequate after the "African Art in Motion" exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art in 1974, in which the interaction of dance and mime with sculpture and dress was emphasized. Since then the dramatically lit mask handing still on the wall without an examination of the larger questions of what it is all about, and what it tells us about African civilization and people, has seemed inadequate. A small label won't do it. There needs to be a creative, underlying idea, a more complex intellectual underpinning.
The catalogue's author, Friar Joseph Cornet, now director of the Natonal Museum of Zaire in Kinshasha, made the selection and wrote the text for the catalogue after receiving permission to leave the country and spend several weeks with the Bronsons in Beverly Hills, Calif.
He is considered to be the leading scholar on the art of Zaire. He was also, it turns out, President Mobutu's professor in an architectural history course at the University of Brussels some years back, and was subsequently invited to organize, catalogue and direct the National Museum.
Cornet, a Catholic priest, was not in Washington for the opening, but is expected to be in Los Angeles for the opening of the exhibition there in November. The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh originally organized the exhibit.
Lee Bronson is not bashful about his collection. "Our is the biggest private collection of Zairian art outside Zaire (formerly the Belgian congo)" he said, excepting the now-public collections at Tervuren, Belgium, the former palace of King Leopold.
"We're competitive in our business, which we began from nothing 16 years ago, and now we're competitive collectors. When we do something, we do it."
Bronson, with his designer wife Dona, and brother Robert, owns Bronson, Inc., junior sportswear manufacturer. The firm is repeatedly referred to in the collectors' notes of the catalogue as BRONSON, all upper case.
"I hadn't noticed that," he said, with a mild blush. "I agree it is a bit much."
The Bronsons already have given several pieces to the Museum and "will give move," said Lee Bronson. They have also just helped purchase a building for the museum, the last remaining in the block which the museum did not already own. Bronson sits on the museum's board.
And will his collection ultimately come to the museum? "It depends on space," said Bronson. "Right now they don't have enough space. But when the become part of the Smithsonian, perhaps they will. We'll have to see what the Smithsonian does," he said.