WE'VE ALL HEARD about how African art objects, collected -- or seized -- by French colonials and taken to Paris, so captivated the cubists and surrealists that Western art will never be the same.
Often a Picasso painting will be paired with a picture of a mask from Benin or a Kongo "power figure" to illustrate the African influence, which is so obvious as almost to seem trite. What doesn't come across, at least to those of us not fortunate enough to have visited the Mus,ee de l'Homme in Paris, is the real impact of the African works, most of which photograph so poorly that it utterly alters their character.
If you've always wondered what all the fuss was about, now's the time to go over to the National Museum of African Art and see for yourself: A round hundred of the finest pieces from the French collection will be on view through June 9. This tour is the first time most of the pieces have been let out of France.
Many of the works originally were bought, seized or stolen by Europeans who didn't know or care who made them or what they were used for. But you don't have to know the cultural context to appreciate the skill and artistic vision they represent.
For instance, anthropologists and art historians have been speculating since 1884 on the purpose and meaning of a stark and simple but enigmatic mask acquired from the Aduma people of Gabon. It's eerily asymmetrical and oddly painted, yet has the force and unity that distinguish art from ornament; that's all we know, and all we need to know.
What is "known" about some of the pieces is flat wrong, explains curator Bryna Freyer, because even conscientious scientific collectors have been deliberately misled. Villagers might be perfectly willing to part with an ancient and solemn ceremonial piece, because the important thing is not the object itself but the history and associations of which it had been the focus.
Once an object was sold or seized it "died," or simply ceased to be significant, so long as the knowledge of its true nature and purpose was kept secret from the outlander, Freyer says. So the white man got the bottle, while the black man kept the wine. This almost automatic deconsecration relieves the exhibit of the sort of tension sometimes generated when items sacred to another culture are put on public display.
The early marauders were followed by sometimes equally high-handed "scientific" collecting expeditions, but eventually the leading students of African art and culture developed deep respect for the people and love of their works. Even so, a scientist inquiring about some object often would be spun a plausible or outlandish tale by the local king, a village elder or a "specialist" -- a term modern anthropologists have adopted in place of the denigratory "witch doctor" or misleading "priest."
The exhibit embraces western and southern Africa from Mali to Madagascar; understandably there's a predominance of objects from the former French colonies. The range and variety are astonishing, and in most cases the works justify the exhibition title of "African Masterpieces."
What arrests the attention again and again is the individuality of each work, even when constrained by rigid technical, stylistic and iconographic rules. And few objects ever produced by human hands can compare with the seven-foot Yangere slit drum from the Central African Republic that dominates the show. Carved in the 19th century from a single block of wood, the thing is massive, graceful, awesome, perfect. It's a splendid carving of an antelope and it's an excellent drum, conceding neither form to function nor function to form. In fact it seems to say that if we have to couch a question about art in such terms, we probably couldn't understand the answer.
AFRICAN MASTERPIECES -- Through June 9 at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 318 A Street NE. Open noon to 5 weekends and holidays, 10 to 5 weekdays.