"The Stranger Among Us," which goes on view today at the National Museum of African Art, 318 A St. NE, is a show designed to dent an old and subtle snobbery. Many of its artifacts are relatively recent; not all of them are beautiful, some are merely curious. But seen together, these 174 masks and stools and figurines, textiles and bronzes seem strong enough to challenge conventional conceptions of Africa's old art.
It is their subject that unites them. All these objects deal with the new, the alien, the strange. Our eyes have grown accustomed to masks and Benin bronzes, to cowrie shells and beads, but rarely have we seen these sly African depictions of pith helmets and bicycles, slave traders from Portugal, tonsured European monks and smug English colonials wearing wing-tip shoes.
Most African exhibits snub the recent past. They trumpet the traditional and sneer at innovation. Only old art counts, is what they seem to say.
Partially concealed in that antiquarian attitude is a not-so-subtle prejudice. The artist who is African, so the slander goes, is not a real artist, but a kind of noble savage. He is superstitious, gifted and frequently impressive. But unlike Western artists, he is not at all original. He deserves small credit for the power of his art; the credit goes, instead, to his tribe and its traditions. He is tied to the archaic. The modern world pollutes the wellsprings of his art. Isn't it a shame that when he dares to innovate he loses authenticity and grinds out "airport art"?
This show takes that contention and turns it upside down.
Many artists here portray the unfamiliar--the masts and spars of sailing ships, the ruffs worn by the Portuguese, the mutton chops and gin bottles of European traders, the red eyes and red noses of European lushes, polo ponies, sunglasses, umbrellas and madonnas. Their work is spiced by humor. Frequently it bites. What makes this art so special is that it seems to be at once traditional and free.
That should not seem surprising. The black art of America, after all, combines the strict with the improvised. The blues singer, while remaining loyal to the 12-bar blues form, may compose a lyric about anything at all. The jazz musician, too, balances obedience to a given chord progression, with easy spontaneity. The Corcoran's black folk art show (which closes here Sunday) also calls to our attention artists of great skill whose greatest skill is blending the entirely traditional and the wholly new.
That blending, this show demonstrates, is not--and has never been--alien to Africa. In their songs and in their dances, and in their carving, too, the artists of black Africa have long been able to combine rigid formal structure with free improvisation. This loan show lets us see how individual they are.
The first strangers we encounter in "The Stranger Among Us" are not Indians or Asians or colonial Europeans. They are other Africans. The Kuba of Zaire regarded pygmies as small aliens, and cartooned pygmy features in their ceremonial masks. In masquerades performed by the Dogon of Mali, male dancers dressed up like the women of their neighbors, the Fulani, women whom the Dogon viewed as beautiful and rich.
The Portuguese explorers first moved into Africa in the mid-15th century, and as soon began appearing in works of tribal art. Their boats appear on incised gourds, their helmets, guns and pleated skirts on ancient Benin bronzes. One bronze plaque from Benin here shows the Oba, the ruler of that nation, flanked by pictures of the Portuguese he hired to help his army fight its tribal wars.
A small wooden carving from Mozambique on view here wears the hat and trousers of a European sailor. Another European, probably a slave trader, is portrayed in a splendid painted carving acquired in the Congo in 1843. He wears a wide-brimmed hat, long and furry sideburns and a full-sleeved trader's jacket (complete with eight brass buttons). He sits upon a stool--a posture that, in Africa, indicates his power. The bottle and the goblet he holds in his hands suggest he may have traded booze for slaves. A large, non-European drum grows out of his head.
The eyeglasses and boots, neckties and umbrellas that we see in these carvings remind us that their artists depicted what they saw. Or what they learned in churches. One small carved madonna has a snake twined around the base on which she stands. The bearded figure on the base of another first-rate piece, a carved ceremonial stool, is King Nebuchadnezzar, who is portrayed dreaming of his trials in the wilderness. Picasso, of course, borrowed images from Africa, as Degas and Mary Cassatt borrowed from Japan. The artists that we meet here were just as quick to take images from Europe, from her armies and her churches, for use in their art. And not only from Europe. A lithograph that shows a woman wrapped with snakes was introduced into Africa in the 1920s, and that Indian snake charmer--for that is what she was--was soon reproduced in many African carvings of the deity Mammy Wata. Two of her portrayals are included in this show.
Queen Victoria, plump and throned, is also on display. So is a puppet figure of the King of England. He has a most imposing crown and heavy leather boots, but is not wearing pants. One impressive case here contains 15 carvings of soldiers in their uniforms. Some wear puttees, some dark glasses. The best of them, though scary, make one want to laugh.
Africans long have recognized the headdress, the hairdo or the mask as a symbol of significance. Not at all surprisingly, the pith helmet so often worn by their colonial rulers is seen often in this show as a sign of power. It appears, a bit incongruously and flanked by antique pistols, on a girl's initiation mask from the Mende people of Sierra Leone.
The Chinese who built the railroad from the Congo to the sea, as well as Indian merchants, bewigged English judges and Boers from South Africa, appear in these carvings. So do modern Africans who have taken to the styles and artifacts of the West. One is portrayed on a dance crest from Ibibio, Nigeria. He wears a tab-collar shirt, a brightly colored necktie and a pencil-thin mustache.
"The Stranger Among Us" was organized by Roslyn A. Walker. It will run through June.