In these days of Picassomania in the art world, just about anyone would leap at the offer of a Picasso original. Some people, however, don't think Picasso was all that original.
"If you go upstairs on the second floor," Neba Ngwa Suh, a native of Cameroon, instructed last night at the Museum of African Art, "you'll see a lot of paintings by Picasso. Next to them are the (African) originals, but no one talks about them. If an African artist had plagiarized European art, everyone would have heard about it."
Suh and over 500 other invited guests had joined museum director Warren Robbins and his staff in the Museum's Inner Court garden to celebrate the opening of three new exhibitions highlighting artifacts from Mali, Nigeria, Guinea, and the Dahomey Kingdom, now the Republic of Benin. As the guests admired the brightly colored murals on the garden walls, replications by museum staffers of similar murals found in the N'Debele villages of Southeastern Africa, many echoed in softer tones Suh's annoyance at the Picassos (actually all but one reproductions).
Prof. Adebisi Otudeko, a professor of anthropology at Franklin and Marshall College, left Nigeria 15 years ago. He complained that even "intellectuals" in the field of fine arts associate all African and non-Western art with "primitive art." David Lifschitz, the museum's academic coordinator, placed some of the blame on art critics, charging that most "have never had a course in African art" and thus can only deal with it in "formal terms." Added director Robbins himself: "Some are just too lazy to make the effort."
No such laziness afflicted the guests, whose formal invitations encouraged them to come in African dress. Dr. Charles Drake-Long, a cancer researcher in Rockville, looked more traditionally African than anyone with his tagia (a cap) and soro (pants). He sheeplishily confessed his South Carolina origins. Stewart Ellis, retired former executive secretary to former senator John Sparkman of Alabama, came in a floor-length African garment, as did his wife Vannie. Anne Kapstein, 1 1/2-year-old grandchild of Dorothy Kapstein, buyer for the museum's boutique, circulated nimbly in the world's smalles dashiki.
Part of the museum's purpose, many guests reitereated, is to introduce Americans to African cultures through art. That often means defeating stereotypes.
Innocent P. d'Almeida, attache at the Benin Embassy, ususally has to start out by informing puzzled Americans where and what Benin is -- the name change from Dahomey came only a few years ago. Then, he says, the most common association is with "Amazon warriors." Don Norland, American ambassador to Chad, is back in Washington until the shooting stops at his post. He said the Chad stereotype is "that it's bush, primitive." Ed Clarke, U.S. ambassador to Mali from 1968 to 1972, named Timbuktu as the link that convinces Americans that they do know something related to Mali. Traditionally a synonym for remoteness to Europeans and Americans, Timbuktu he noted, was a great cultural center during the Dark Ages.
For all that African art and the museum's other resources does for myopic Americans, it's not bad to have around for Africans either.
"My wife -- she's American -- made me come here to look at the African name book when we had our baby," said Innocent, sounding a little guilty.