An old frustration gnaws "Life . . . Afterlife: African Funerary Sculpture," which goes on view today at the National Museum of African Art. Its objects aren't at fault; they are exceptionally beautiful. But their power takes us just so far.
What blinds us is our ignorance. This handsome exhibition, like too many of its kind, hints where it should explicate, skims where it might probe. But no one is to blame. Africa's art history is still a field of study rich in wondrous objects, but poor in information.
What does that bird mask represent? How was it used or danced, welcomed, feared, or worshiped? What were the songs sung to it? Why is its bill so large? We understand our Western art, we know that dove above the Ark is not a city pigeon, but a sign from God to Noah. But what are we to make here of that stunning hornbill mask from Bobo, Upper Volta?
This exhibit, to its credit, tries to suggest answers. We learn, for example, that "because of its special behavior, the hornbill bird symbolizes both ideal marriage and the hope for a good harvest." But what "special behavior"? Why "ideal marriage"? The labels here, though useful, tend to tease the viewer. The more he learns from reading them, the more he wants to know.
This ambivalent exhibit is not quite sure of its duty. Should it entertain -- or teach? With its potted plants, its cream-white walls, its lights and plastic cases, it looks like most museum shows. Frozen on their stands, the sculptures on display look less like holy objects than like precious works of art.
But this show does try. Because it has a theme, and is more than a treasure-trove, "Life . . . Afterlife" teaches one already-known but still-important lesson: Africans, in general, do not accept, as we do, the finality of death.
"Westerners," writes John E. Reinhardt, the museum's acting director, "have come increasingly to doubt a future existence, but for Africans the future is now. It is as if they coined the very term and concept of afterlife -- not the faith-inspired, celestial, immortal, interplanetary abode following death; but instead a continuing cycle of life, which is routinely interrupted by death, only to be again restored to a terrestrial existence . . . For Africans, life is afterlife."
Because the dead are ever present in the daily life of Africa, the funerary sculptures here, these bronzes, masks, and carvings, are more than merely analogs of, say, Western gravestones. Most objects from old Africa acknowledge in their imagery the presence of the dead.
We may not think the dollar bill a funerary object, but George Washington is dead, and his face appears upon it. Similarly these awesome bronze Benin heads topped by tusks of ivory are signs at once of wealth and of revered, departed leaders. We do not see the horoscope, the flipped coin or the Tarot deck as conduits to the deceased, but African diviners -- whose implements are here -- seek to know the future by questioning the dead and their familiars. (One divination vase here from Baule, Ivory Coast, was made for a mouse oracle; the rodent was invited to move rods of metal whose patterns then, like tea leaves, could be read for a message).
The wreaths we send to funerals, and the toasts we offer the deceased, are grave gifts of a sort, and the Africans we meet here were comparably generous. One reliquary guardian figure from the Fang people of Gabon has been bathed so often with libations of palm oil that underneath museum lights its shining surface sweats. (Another guardian figure has been fed so often that mice have gnawed its limbs. It is not thought ruined; such tooth marks prove, to scholars, the statue's authenticity.)
In Africa the dead are recalled in many ways, by masks employed in funerals (or "cry-dies"), by figures made to scare off ghosts, by portraits and by relics, by images of animals that symbolize the virtues and the powers of the dead, by grave gifts and grave markers, and, among the Ashanti of Ghana, by carved wooden stools. A label informs us that upon a ruler's death, his wooden stool, his throne, the true "seat" of his power, is sometimes turned upon its side and ritually blackened with a mixture of soot, egg white and fat.
The carvings and the masks here, the figurines and bronzes, speak a highly complex language, a language that we realize is too frequently misread. The horns of that tall mask from Yatenga, Upper Volta, do not represent an animal but implements for weaving. When employed in a funeral those "horns" may represent, as the spinning Fates of Greece do, the weaving and the snipping of the thread of life.
No field of art scholarship is hungrier for data than the study of old Africa. The objects are available -- there are 119 here, some from the museum, most from private lenders -- but the viewer leaves this handsome show fearing he's not understood a single one in depth. The National Museum of African Art is at 318 A St. NE. The show continues through February.