THE STEREOTYPE is that African art was never classical, that cultuirally it was barefoot, that the society was not technical, but primitive, and that Africa was a sleping giant awakened only when explored from outside.
In recent years we've seen the grossest of these notions change -- and the list of those who've helped us change them is long: art historians such as Frank Willett and Robert Thompson, Warren Robbins of the Museum of African Art, James Porter, Jeff Donaldson and his Lagos Festival and even Alex Haley and "Roots."
But some of the stereotypes still ride just below the surface of many consciousnesses, and if I close my eyes, I can see myself still -- a young girl sitting in the Lyric theater in Louisville, eating buttered popcorn and washing it down with doses of negative cultural identity flickering on the screen before me. It was "Tarzan's Peril," with Tarzan battling warlike tribal leaders and cannibals.
Now I know deeply that the stereotype is false. Thanks to Nigeria's Ekpo Eyo and that country's strong antiquities program, what I saw then I no longer see.
What I've just seen at the Corcoran Gallery of Art here is a 2,000-year-old legacy that shows the continent too long dubbed "dark" actually aglow with a culture of a high order that surpasses in beauty and craftsmanship the greatest works of art.
Now I walk through and see terra cotta, glass, wood and bronze processes, and I ask myself what it means. It means distinct cultures like Nok; it means the Igbo-Ukwu craftsmen who had by the 10th century A.D. produced virtuoso works using the lost-wax techniques of bronze casting. I see the magnificent Benin bronzes, and I ask myself what they mean. They mean the city-states of Ife and Benin whose courts required these spectacular works of sculpture and whose artists responded.
I see fragments that I realize are parts of human-sized sculptures, fragments of a culture that in a way glued society together. Through the art I reread the people. There is warmth, comfort, humanity, a beyond that speaks not only to lay people like me but to great artists like Matisse and Picasso.
It was a wonderfully "up" note on which to begin the new year, but I have to admit to flashes of anger, an outrage at the lies that we'd suffered when we should have exulted.
So there, Lord Clark! You know him, the British art historian whose name is synonymous with western civilization. In his acclaimed book, "Civilization," he compared the Greek sculpture, "Apollo of the Belvidere," to the African mask:
"Whatever its merits as a work of art, I don't think there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civiliation than the mask. . . . To the Negro imagination it is a world of fear and darness. . . . To the Hellenistic imagination it is a world of light and confidence in which the gods are like ourselves but only more beautiful."
Now I can reject this.Now I can see for myself ancient treasures that are not about fear and darkness. What I've seen are works that should jolt western art history's old prejudices about ancient Africa as dramatically as, say, Explorer, passing Saturn, changed our notions about the planet with its new information about Saturn's rings.
What causes these treasures to affect me so deeply? I'm a person of the '60s who's been aware of the need to create answers, a need created by the search for many others.
Amina Dickerson, education director of the Museum of African Art, has shared this search. She speaks of entering the Corcoran at the end of a crowded opening night reception. "There, all by myself, what those pieces communicated to me spiritually almost brought me to tears. There was a majesty."
The resident artist at my house excitedly described the exhibition as a "welcome historical triumph for mankind." And we both agreed it was an exhibit we want to share with out children. I hope Washington area schoolchildren will overrun the Corcoran Gallery for the duration of the show, which ends Jan. 31, for it is up to each generation to discover and assimilate its own truth.
All of this brought to mind the insight of a friend who saw the shoe in New York. He said it should prompt this nation to seriously nurture the descendants of these ancients who now live in America.
That's quite a leap -- from the distant past to the present - but it is mind-boggling to consider what creativity could flourish it foresight rather than fear reigned.