If the Africans who made the art placed in museums had known what would happen to their work, they'd likely be astounded.
Almost all of the objects valued today for esthetic reasons were created for practical purposes. By taking them away from the rituals and uses for which they were made, the works are seen in a very different light.
Three new exhibitions -- opening to the public today at the Museum of African Art -- attempt to make that point about context. They are the first major shows since the museum -- independent since its creation in 1964 -- merged with the Smithsonian Institution last August.
Nearly all of the works date from the first part of the 20th century. The largest -- and by far the most interesting -- of the three is the selection from the permanent collection. Nearly 450 works from the museum's 8,000 objects are on view. The organization is geographic and the intention is to show what was happening concurrently in the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Mali, South Africa and a number of other African countries.
Among the most important and beautiful pieces are the two rhythm pounders -- a male figure with a chameleon in his headdress and a female figure holding a gourd rattle and staff -- which were created as a pair by the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast. The legs of the two tall, wooden figures are abruptly chopped off: the result of using the figures to pound against the earth in homage to agriculture.
Huge, elaborately carved wooden masks, worn almost exclusively by men, changed the human being into the personification of a spirit or god. And the dances in which they are still used thank, cajole, honor or ward off those spirits.
A maternity figure of the Bambara people of Mali, with a manneristically extended elegance in her face and torso, is not only quite beautiful, but is thought to be of help to infertile women.
Reliquary figures of the Kota of Gabon, crafted inpounded brass and copper, are stylized portraits of the dead -- used to protect the decreased, who were in turn expected to protect and guide their survivors.
All the works share the exaggeration of features, the paring down of forms to essential line and shape and the importance of surface repetition and pattern. The influence on modern artists couldn't be more obvious, and in fact the parallels are quite specically drawn in two galleries.
The other two exhibitions consist of brilliantly colored and decorated puppets from West Africa and the Herskovits collections of appliqued cloths from the Kingdom of Dahomey, now known as Benin.