The images of J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere are wonderful. For decades, he has documented the amazing sculptural hairstyles worn by women in his native Nigeria.
His black-and-white photographic prints have an almost clinical detachment. The snaking braids and flying buttresses of each hairdo are silhouetted against a white background, then often shot from several different points of view. His pictures feel entirely respectful of their subject matter. It's almost as though the women's hairdos, and the stylists who came up with them, matter more than their photographer. He gives us a window onto a genuinely foreign art form and aesthetic, without feeling any need to throw in his own more obviously artsy touches.
It's worth a trip to "African Art Now: Masterpieces From the Jean Pigozzi Collection," the show that opened last week at National Museum of African Art, to see the Ojeikeres in it.
Few of the other works are such a straightforward delight.
A lot of the exhibition is made up of what you might call outsider art: funky masks made from old gas cans, a coffin in the shape of an onion, fantastical science-fiction doodles. This work is not in the thick of things, in terms of Western art, but it's also not always part of any strong local tradition. It's made by former office clerks or laborers or carpenters, apparently making art in aesthetic isolation. Each piece is the idiosyncratic outpouring of a single maker's artistic urges -- sometimes influenced, it seems, by mental illness -- rather than the latest, very deliberate contribution to an exciting conversation already underway, in Africa or elsewhere.
If you like that kind of funky stuff, you'll like much of this funky show. But it may also make you uncomfortable. It gives a sense that we're using someone else's work to make "found art" that happens to appeal to our modern Western taste for way-out imagery.
It's as though we've come across a pile of foreign objects we don't really understand -- in this case they happen to be works of art, but they could as easily be peculiar household implements -- and used them for our own aesthetic ends. When we admire work by untrained African artists, that is, we're not really that far from Picasso and his peers, who incorporated elements of foreign and outsider art into their own work, without caring at all about the art's original meanings. Except that Picasso at least used his appropriation to make radically new things. If he was guilty of unfeeling theft, at least all Western art could profit from it.
In the case of the Pigozzi collection, I feel as though I've seen its brand of lively, colorful primitivism a thousand times before.
I use the naughty word "primitivism" deliberately, because Swiss collector Jean Pigozzi, son of a famous industrialist, seems to buy into a kind of "noble savage" view of the recent African art he has amassed in such vast quantity. (This show presents about 100 objects of the 6,000-plus works he owns.) According to the exhibition catalogue, Pigozzi particularly values the "non-education," as he puts it, of the artists he collects. He's even quoted as saying that this gives them a kind of "pure self-expression." He only needs to insert the adjective "childlike" to sound like your typical Big Bwana collector, circa 1920.
There's something kind of creepy about the notion of Pigozzi and his curator, Frenchman Andre Magnin, venturing into the deepest, dampest heart of Africa, bringing out exotic objects made by untutored natives so that Washingtonians can gawk at them.
At least many African experts seem creeped out by their approach. A Nigerian scholar who teaches at Indiana State has written that in amassing the Pigozzi collection, Magnin "went on an African safari" in search of "the ultra-primitive." Another Nigerian writer says that it's about time we did away with "the idea that Africa is a place of naive creativity" -- just the view that seems alive and well in the Pigozzi show.
A former curator at the museum in Lagos has written that Pigozzi's collection makes it seem that " 'true Africa' is perpetually unschooled, primitive and innocent." (All three are quoted in the exhibition's unusually evenhanded catalogue essay, by leading art historian Thomas McEvilley).
Even some of the photographs collected by Pigozzi make me a touch uneasy, though they're too mainstream and technically competent to be thought of as outsider work. The show includes pictures by commercial photographers Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita, from Mali, and by Depara -- he went by that single name -- who died in Congo in 1997. They made a living by shooting their local scenes, and their well-known images from the 1960s and 1970s managed to convey a sense of the new energies that flowed in the cities of a recently decolonized continent. But it's very hard to look at these shots without a word like "charming" coming to mind, as though you've come across a box of vintage photos in the attic.
When we praise these pictures, are we genuinely responding to the unusual skill and talented eye of the photographer? Sometimes, maybe -- at least in the case of Keita, and in a few of Sidibe's best shots. A lot of the time, however, I think we're enjoying quaint images of exotic foreigners, who mimic Western clothes and manners, but somehow, gosh, seem to have a kind of naive verve that we "moderns" have lost.
There's none of that condescension in Ojeikere's hair shots.
African Art Now continues through Feb. 26 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, on the south side of the Mall at 10th Street NW. Call 202-633-4600 or visit www.nmafa.si.edu.