"African Masterpieces From the Muse'e de l'Homme," an exhibition of 100 indisputably beautiful, powerful, expressive, evocative objects, opens today at the National Museum of African Art.
The exhibition, selected from the extensive holdings of a Parisian museum established nearly a century and a half ago by royal decree as a repository for ethnological curiosities, raises all the familiar, fundamental questions underlying the ambiguous status of artifacts excerpted from their cultural context and placed, as artistic "masterpieces," on the walls of western museums.
Who made these objects and when, how do we judge them, how were they judged by their creators, how were they used, what do they mean, how did we get them, why are they here? The list of questions is long and provocative and, despite the continuing researches of anthropologists, linguists and art historians, they defy easy answer or inclusive interpretation. The objects are and will remain foreign to us in certain basic respects.
And yet neither the questions nor our evolving responses to them may matter all that much: these pieces clearly and finely represent one of the triumphant esthetic chapters of the human story, a variegated tradition of religious art dating back hundreds and perhaps thousands of years.
To cite but a few examples in this exhibition:
* A "white monkey" mask from the Dogon village of Ireli in Mali consists of a concave face with two simple, rectangular holes for its wearer's eyes, atop which perches a magnificent monkey whose eyes echo those of the mask and whose arms beautifully wrap into its legless body. The catalogue states without fear of contradiction that "this mask collected in the early 1930s is by far the most famous, most beautiful, and best documented example" of its kind.
* An antelope marionette, from the Bozo tribe in Mali, is "a masterpiece created by a professional artist who had perfectly imagined the movement of his object in space," the catalogue states. It is a perfectly elegant object from the bottom tip of its elongated, decorated head to the full extent of its looping horns. Who today would not thrill to the imagined spectacle of this antelope as it was brandished in the air to celebrate a harvest?
* A great Yangere slit drum, collected in the 19th century in what is now the Central African Republic, reminds us directly of the musical genius that accompanied the sculptural genius of much traditional African art. The drum, more than 60 inches long, is in the form of a horned bovine animal with a rounded belly on which the drummer could produce tones approximating the "pitches and rhythms of [tonal] speech."
* A mother-and-child figure from the Bamileke in Cameroon represents the quintessence of the West African mastery of wood. This free-standing figure, carved to commemorate the birth of the first child of a grasslands king early in this century, is a study in the manipulation of volumes in space the likes of which would be the envy of every great western sculptor of our century.
* A fabulous "boli," or altar, of the Komo secret society of the Bamana people in Mali, seems the full opposite, in expressive terms, of the pieces mentioned above. This large, lumpish, animal-like form, built up with layers of "such materials as earth, sacrificial blood, wood, bark, honey, chewed kola nuts, millet and beer," served ritual purposes that no westerner has penetrated, and yet its esthetic potency is undeniable.
For obvious reasons the exhibition is particularly strong in the areas, such as Mali, the French formerly occupied as colonies. Thus it begins with a gallery containing 17 pieces from the Dogon, a people who created an astonishingly varied art and architecture in the rough terrain south of Timbuktu and who were, not incidentally, carefully studied by the pace-setting French anthropologist Marcel Griaule from the 1930s into the 1950s. (The rapport Griaule established was such that when he died he was honored with traditional funerary rites, never before given a white man.)
In addition to the "white monkey" mask the gallery contains numerous expressive human and animal masks as well as rigid free-standing figures, carved window shutters and utensils such as the heddle pulley donated to the French museum by Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist who was not alone among early 20th-century artists in admiring, and collecting, African art.
Another strong grouping comes from the coastal Kongo people (spreading through the contemporary countries of Congo, Zaire and Angola). The selection includes "oath taking figures" of two types -- those into which nails or other metal objects were driven to finalize an oath or judicial decree, and those that were draped with shells, nuts or horns for similar purposes.
A superb Kongo funerary figure of a white-painted, seated male outfitted in European dress fairly sums up the history of 500 years of contact between this people and the Europeans during which "the Kongo maintained their culture -- scarcely more affected by the contact than were their European visitors."
Such was not always the case, of course. The effects of rapacious European contact (often achieved with African collaboration) were reflected in many ways in western attitudes toward the art, which began with incomprehension ironically combining hostility and acquisitiveness, and gradually progressed to the point where one respects the art while admitting the vast cultural distance that separates it from us.
This process is almost precisely paralleled in the history of the Muse'e de l'Homme, which began under Louis Phillippe as a sort of odd-lot depository, then became the Trocadero Museum of Ethnography and acquired its present, resounding name (with no little influence from the community of Parisian artists who had haunted it from the 1910s on) only in 1937.
Despite the difficulties of interpretation, which have a way of becoming more profound the more we know, and despite the fact that the western market for African artifacts still today contributes to the dispersion of traditional African culture (sculptures have been stolen from African museums to meet the demand), the West's position today is in many ways honorable. The appreciation shown this great art by preserving, studying and exhibiting it is, at its best, a fine tribute paid by one culture to another.
The Washington installation, though an improvement over the Spartan installation earlier this year of the Katherine White collection, is still in many ways a bleak, white-on-white affair with too many objects in wall vitrines hidden from all but head-on viewing. One hopes that, while awaiting the great move to the Mall, still two years away, the museum in row houses on Capitol Hill is not allowed to lose something of its much-loved soul.
The exhibition, initially shown at the Center for African Art in New York, continues through June 9.