"I am pleased," said Tanzanian Ambassador Paul Bomani to the crowd gathered at the Museum of African Art last night, "to see here, for the first time, art displayed from east Africa."
"Not to contradict you," museum founder and director Warren Robbins said moments later. "I know the ambassador travels a lot. But we have had art from east Africa, from Botswana for example."
"Yes," amended the ambassador precisely, "but Botswana is more southern Africa."
Not everyone at the opening of the new exhibit -- a show of traditional costumes and jewelry from Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya -- was quibbling over geography. Most had wandered off away from the hors d'oeuvres and toward the art, divided between two rooms.
In one were the masquerade costumes of the Edo of southern Nigeria, each about six feet long and made of brilliantly colored appliqued cloth. They stood like ghostly sentinels beside black and white photographs of Edo males leaping and prancing in ritual dances. The costumes in the show are female, each with conical cloth breasts attached to their torsoes, but the dances are performed by males only.
"Look at this," said Godwin Nwajei, a Nigerian from the National Museum of Lagos. He stood beside an Edo costume of reds and yellows, its headpiece topped with several small figures, also cloth. "You must imagine these costumes in motion. You must try to hear the music. These costumes are simply one part of Okakgbe, of the masquerade. The dance and music are the other part.
"In that region there are many secret societies. When a society member dies, he is buried secretly at night. The next day, the death is announced, and dances are performed. This is the second burial. This is why we associate the masquerades with spirits. But there are many dances, many costumes, not only for death. When a boy comes of age, for example, there is a masquerade."
But if the Edo Okakgbe is a man's art, the beaded jewelry of the Maasai is woman's territory. Color photographs in that room show groups of women seated in small circles, fingers full of glass beads, laps full of wire. The beads are glass, manufactured in Eastern Europe. It takes thousands of them to produce a circular bridal collar or a belt. Before the glass beads could be obtained, the Maasai used other objects, like ostrich egg shells. Though the geometric designs and glowing color patterns are rigidly prescribed, they are not written down.
"All of the colors and designs refer to water," said a connoisseur, "to rainbows, to waterfalls, to rain." The beaded collars are worn one on top of the other, and when the women walk or dance, or run, the sound is much like that of rainfall. "It is beautiful to watch," said another man lost in contemplation.
Although some in the crowded gallery were Africans, many others had been to Africa only long enough to miss it, like the man and woman from New York who stood near dark-skinned mannequins wearing beaded bracelets and hide skirts.
"The Maasai and the British are very much alike, actually," said William Schreck, an English professor at Brooklyn College. "They both think they have the best culture, and neither one will give an inch.
"We were in the Peace Corps," he explained. "We were teachers. I lived in Kenya and Nigeria."
"And I taught art at the university in Nigeria," said his friend.
"In Africa this art is not set apart," he said.
"No," she agreed.
"It's part of everyday life."
"It's a lived experience."