CELEBRATIONS AND RITUALS: THE ART OF AFRICA -- At Meridian House International, 1630 Crescent Place NW, through Oct. 24. Open daily noon to 5; closed Oct. 7 through 11.; THE IMAGE OF THE BLACK IN WESTERN ART -- At the Museum of African Art, 316 A Street NE, Saturday through Nov 9. Open weekdays 11 to 5, Saturday and Sunday noon to 5.
Two exhibitions opening this week -- one on traditional African art, and the other on Western artists' historical perception of Africans -- raise more questions than they answer and evoke again the mystery that Africa was and largely remains.
"Has it been danced?" the discerning collector will ask before buying a mask, fetish, statue or other traditional African art object, meaning has it been used in the fertility, funeral, puberty or other ceremony for which it was created. It's the utilization that lends African art its value, that makes it sacred. That's the theme of the exhibit "Celebrations and Rituals: The Art of Africa," at Meridian House International through October 24.
Throughout the continent, if it is art, it is worn or worshipped or raised in ritual dance but rarely mere decoration. African art is recreation, religion, history, politics, procreation and survival, and all the vital forces, each inseperable from the rest.
Even this one-room exhibit gives a glimpse of the breadth of African art, as varied as the cultures that people the vast continent. But there are consistent themes, especially this: that all of existence merges into unity. These sacred, yet functional items that may seem primitive to the Western viewer actually embody the deepest, centuries-old customs and beliefs of their users.
The images are almost all conceptual rather than realistic. Features of several animals, or humans and animals may be combined in the same sculpture or mask. Usually in wood, but often also in metal, these seemingly random creations adorned with multi-colored beads, strips of cloth, leather and animal skins, shells and dried grasses speak eloquently to the initiated.
There's the Bundu mask, a full headcovering of carved wood that the Sande women's secret society among the Mende in Sierra Leone and Liberia wear to initiate girls into adulthood and their social and family responsibilities. The mask's detailed hairstyle, rounded conical shape and symmetrical rings around the widened bottom depict neck lines and thickened body weight of maturity and childbearing, something to be aspired to; the mask says that the ideal of beauty lies in spiritual, not physical attributes.
A Sundi nail fetish from Zaire, the wood of its human torso corroded from use and pierced by nails, each driven to activate a different spiritual wish, has a hollow-cupped abdomen for offerings to the spirits. It is one of only a dozen ever acquired by collectors.
Two ghost-like mortuary figures from Kenya and Ethiopia are straight slabs of wood the size of a man, with vaguely shaped heads and indistinct facial features, commemorating the spirits of the dead.
The choice of materials varies from one ethnic group to another, and the same object can have strikingly different meanings in different cultures. The cowrie shell, from the tiny mollusks of the Indian ocean, but carried as far as the Atlantic Ocean, and historically used as money, is a favorite adornment. In some places it signifies death or the spirit world because its whiteness is likened to skeletal bones, but elsewhere it means life, or fertility.
This exhibit excites more curiosity than it satisfies: to understand the art of Africa would be to grasp the complexity of its civilizations, but to appreciate it may be simply to accept its inscrutability, or as the organizers of the exhibit expressed it:
"We do not hear the drums, music and voices, nor do we see the fluttering costumes of the masked dancer," and in thus embracing it out of its cultural context perhaps "pay a higher compliment to the African artist and his objects."
In the other show, four thousand years of African images in Western art is condensed into 106 photographs in "The Image of the Black in Western Art," opening Saturday at the Smithsonian's Museum of African Art. What these color and black and white illustrations of pieces in museums worldwide show is not so much an evolving perception of blacks, but one that rose or fell with the political, religious, economic and geographic shifts over the centuries as their status in the human family shifted.
From the earliest illustrations in Egyptian drawings and sculpture around 2,600 B.C. to the 16th century, Africans were alternately shown as revered alien kings, menacing enemies, admired warriors, or debased slaves, and often simultaneously, equal subjects in the Kingdom of Christianity.
Three rows of African faces in relief adorn the rim of an elaborately detailed gold drinking bowl used in Greek religious ceremonies of 4th century B.C., illustrating the esteem they enjoyed in Greco-Roman times.
Western Europeans in the ignorance of the Dark Ages came to equate blackness with sin and death, thus the depiction of Africans as executioners and tortures -- until the reawakening after the Moorish invasion of Spain in the 10th century.
The 13th-century stone rendering of the Last Judgement over the main portal of Paris' Cathedral of Notre Dame shows a revival of the African's positive image -- a black man among those rising from the grave to eternal salvation.
The exhibit is revealing, as well, in what it does not include. For example there is no known art of the 15-th century, Portuguese-initiated slave trade in West Africa although blacks are shown as servants, laborers and artisans in the Europeans art of the time.
Beginning a three-year national tour here, the exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service is drawn from a massive three-volume work of the same title. On the whole, it's only an introduction to the subject and a look at some of the world's greatest art, second-hand.