A VISITOR to the National Museum of African Art's latest special exhibition might be forgiven for becoming momentarily confused and thinking that he or she had accidentally wandered into the wrong building.
"African Art Now: Masterpieces From the Jean Pigozzi Collection" could actually startle someone accustomed only to the traditional masks and ceremonial objects we have come to expect from this, or indeed from any other, African art museum. Not that the museum has never shown contemporary art before, but there's never been so much of it taking up most of a single floor before now. At times, you might trick yourself into believing that you were in the nearby Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and not a museum that has built its reputation on showing work with little engagement in the present.
Take Benin-based Romuald Hazoume's installation featuring a gasoline-can-laden motorcycle half-piercing a wall (an allusion to the cross-border trade in black market fuel oil). On the one hand, it could be a conceptual piece that the Hirshhorn simply misplaced. On the other, it could also easily be something that fell off the truck on the way to the National Museum of Natural History's "African Voices" hall. It has that somewhat dry flavor of the anthropological artifact, too, in addition to the tingle -- and the mystery -- of art.
So does Ghanian Samuel Kane Kwei's onion-shaped coffin, carved for a prosperous African onion farmer. (Don't worry, Kwei's client isn't in it.) Reminding visitors that this is, in fact, the National Museum of African Art are Hazoume's found-object "masks" made of discarded industrial material. Contemporary, yes, but also indebted deeply to the past and its long-established forms. So, too, are the mixed-media masks of Calixte Dakpogan, also of Benin, whose sculptural masks incorporate old flip-flop sandals, car parts, a beat-up electronic calculator and a vinyl record.
But for the most part, the museum that this show consistently evokes is the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, whose stock-in-trade is the work of such self-taught outsiders as the Rev. Howard Finster. Passages such as this one, from the wall-text bio of John Goba of Sierra Leone, seem straight out of one of AVAM's recent catalogues: "At about the age of 30, he experienced a revelation that prompted him to begin making ritual objects for the Ode-lay initiation ceremonies and masquerades that had become widespread in Freetown during the 1970s." Or consider this biographical tidbit on Frederic Bruly Bouabre of Cote d'Ivoire, whose contributions to the show consist of two series of dozens of postcard-size drawings depicting clouds, portraits of historical figures, antiwar imagery and random thoughts: "His art originates from a divine revelation he experienced on March 11, 1948."
In other words, much of the art in "African Art Now" is going to make no sense (at least not in a rational way) to anyone other than the person who made it. A case in point is the found-object assemblage included in the show from Georges Adeagbo of Benin, who offers his own disclaimer about his head-scratching art: "I am not an artist," he says. "I do not make art, I am just a messenger." Whether anyone is able to receive his message is another matter.
This is not to say that the art is no good, even if it is often impenetrable. While Cyprien Tokoudagba's symbolist, Vodun-influenced paintings may evoke "hermetic ceremonies," according to the wall text; while Goba's painted-wood figures may allude to a "private history" to which only the artist has the key; and while Abu Bakarr Mansaray's (literally) fantastic engineering drawings evoke "machines and mysterious sectors called julumbu, which means beyond human brain," they nevertheless hold a strange sway over the viewer.
They obviously did over collector Jean Pigozzi, a Swiss entrepreneur and photographer who owns these roughly 100 works and whose contemporary African art collection reflects his own highly personal tastes.
Not everything Pigozzi owns is of the visionary variety, however. The photographs of Seydou Keita of Mali, J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere of Nigeria, Malick Sidibe of Mali and the artist known as Depara from the Democratic Republic of Congo are accomplished, both formally and in terms of their content. Not so the photography of Ghanian Philip Kwame Apagya, whose clumsy vernacular studio portraits feature everyday Africans posing against painted backdrops of opulence and consumerist fantasy. They may, as the label tells us, "document the unfulfilled ambitions of a society struggling to achieve economic progress," but so do the prom night Polaroids you can pay to have taken of yourself right here in the good old U.S. of A. in front of an air-brushed Rolls-Royce.
Among the show's works that seem most engaged in truly contemporary art issues are the paintings of Cheri Samba. Incorporating references to M.C. Escher and Picasso (albeit a brown-skinned version), Samba's cartoony, pop-flavored canvases address art-world racism in a way that is serious without being polemical.
By and large, however, the show feels at best slightly (and often more than slightly) behind the curve. That's probably due as much to what Pigozzi likes as to any other explanation. But it seems misleading, if not a case of outright false advertising, to package this idiosyncratic collection as "African Art Now." Especially when a fair amount of the art in the show is 10 years old (or, in some cases, more), and especially when a majority of the photography dates from the 1950s to the 1970s.
"African Art Now"? Maybe compared with what we're used to seeing in this context. But compared with what's being made right this very minute in Africa and all around the world, "African Art Now and Then" feels a whole heck of a lot closer to the mark.
AFRICAN ART NOW: MASTERPIECES FROM THE JEAN PIGOZZI COLLECTION -- Through Feb. 26 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-357-1729). www.si.edu/nmafa. Open daily 10 to 5:30. Free.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Sunday at 1 -- Film screening: "Kings of the Water," featuring exhibition artist Cyprien Tokoudagba.
Sunday and Dec. 4 at 2 -- Exhibition tour.
Dec. 4 at 1 -- Film screening: "A Young Man's Dream," featuring exhibition sculptor Efiaimbelo.