Nuna artist, Boucle du Muhoun Region, Burkina Faso face mask. Mid-20th century. Wood, pigment, metal. (National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution/National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution)
Art and architecture critic

A video by South African artist Andrew Putter seems, at first, an odd inclusion in a new survey exhibition mounted by the Smithsonian's African Art Museum. It looks like an animated 17th-century Dutch painting, showing a woman reciting a lullaby in the Nama language, and its title is enigmatic, hinting at a possible breach of basic maternal values: "Secretly I Will Love You More." But its inclusion hints at a troubled history that connects Africa to places such as Holland in its golden age. It's a very subtle hint, and viewers will want to study up on the history lesson encoded in this curious piece. But it is also one of the few places that this compelling exhibition allows the dark history of colonialism to shadow its celebration of uniquely African material culture.

Unlike many of the works on view, we know exactly who made this piece, when and where. Most of the rest of the work in this show, billed as the largest reinstallation of the museum's permanent collection in more than a decade, falls into gray areas of uncertain or anonymous attribution. In some cases, there isn't even a confident regional or tribal identification: A carved wooden female figure is attributed to a "Ngelima or Boa artist" while others are "Possibly Mengbetu artist." The dates listed often span a range of decades, or even centuries, and some pieces are simply listed as "date unknown."

Video still from Andrew Putter’s "Secretly I Will Love You More." (Andrew Putter/National Museum of African Art)

These gray areas can be traced to how the work was collected, and by whom. Is there a clear record of how it traveled through the hands of dealers, travelers, anthropologists and other collectors before arriving at the Smithsonian? In many cases, however, the uncertainty has to do with the object itself. Many on view are ceremonial or everyday objects that weren't made as "art" in the Western sense — as work to be sold on the art market or commissioned for the delectation of a specific patron.

That distinction, between the art object in the Western sense and all the rest of the material on view, is one of several challenges faced by the museum. Kevin Dumouchelle, one of three curators who worked on the installation, says the goal was "to teach our visitors how to look at African art." This meant exploring the material in a multiplicity of ways, sometimes through several lenses at once. "We're trying to get the visitor to slow down," he says.

So, the exhibition is divided into seven basic approaches, the view of the art through the eyes of collectors, scholars, artists, patrons, performers and museum professionals. And one last category: the view through the visitor's own eyes, which is explored in a "Looking Lab" that breaks down the art into basic visual or material categories: expression, gesture, proportion and so forth.

Africa is an enormous continent, with more than 50 countries, and multiple vectors that connect it with other parts of the world, from the Mediterranean north to the Indian Ocean trade routes of the East coast to the deep European ties of countries such as South Africa. The artists represented include an Austrian-born woman, Susanne Wenger, who became a priestess in the Yoruba culture after moving to Nigeria in 1950, and many African-born artists who now work in London or New York. Some of the most magnificent pieces belonged to the collection of Paul and Ruth Tishman, which was sold to the Walt Disney Co. in 1984 (there were plans to include it a permanent exhibition at Epcot Center), before being donated to museum in 2005. Other works, acquired in recent years, explore the ways in which contemporary African cultures defy any kind of standard categorization, including Frank Marshall's portraits of a heavy metal counterculture in Gaborone, Botswana.

Crest mask, early 20th century. Possibly Etim Bassey Ekpenyong (Efik artist), vicinity of Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria. Wood, animal skin, plant fiber, bone, dye. (Franko Khoury/National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution)

A productive thought experiment while visiting the exhibition is to imagine the same approach applied to the entire spectrum of Western material culture, from Greek statues to religious paintings and icons to basic housewares to the appropriation of African visual motifs by artists such as Picasso in the beginning of the last century. Now, make sense of all that in six or seven midsize gallery rooms.

The results are necessarily impressionistic, with the objects themselves making the strongest impressions. The works originally in the Tishman collection speak most clearly to visitors who expect an aestheticized complexity, detail and luxury in an "art" object. A 15th-century carved hunting horn, possibly made as a gift for King Ferdinand V of Castile and Aragon, features Western motifs and religious references delicately carved into its ivory surface. A set of multi-faced masks from Nigeria's Cross River Region are striking objects that bring a powerful sense of the uncanny into the room. Their existence is due in part to a surge in artistic production during the late 19th century when the palm oil trade brought wealth to the region's population.

Olowe of Ise; Yoruba peoples; Worked in Ise, Ekiti State, Nigeria; ca. 1925; from the museum's Tishman Collection. (Franko Khoury/Smithsonian National Museum of African Art)

If the objects from the Tishman collection generally address the collector's passion for ideas of refinement, clarity and beauty, other rooms grapple with difficulties of attribution, the basics of visual language and patterning, and the complexity of African spiritual and religious experience, including the contributions of Christianity and Islam (represented in part by a magnificent Qu'ran and its leather and cloth case).

Lurking beneath the basic taxonomies featured in the new installation are darker questions, too, although these are quietly and sometimes silently in the background of the exhibition. Every one of the seven viewpoints brought to bear on this material has its shadow, its inclination to exploitation or distortion. Collectors often reduce art to commodities, patrons make demands that warp the freedom and creativity of artists and scholars have their own self-serving agendas. The larger museum system, founded on Western disciplines of anthropology and art history, has all too often reduced complex social systems to rigid schema that reflect Western hierarchies.

That isn't the story told in this exhibition, which is explanatory and didactic in a good way. The ugly side of Western or European encounters with Africa is a painful fact; but not everything about Africa or African art can be reduced to a story of colonialism.

The tensions at play can be felt in Andrew Putter's video, "Secretly I Will Love You More." It depicts a Dutch woman, Maria de la Quellerie, who brings an African child into her home. The video borrows the conventions of Dutch portraiture to create what seems to be a living painting of de la Quellerie, wife of Jan Van Riebeeck, a prominent figure in the Dutch East India company and founder of Cape Town. She sings a lullaby in the Nama language to the child: "Do not fear me little one/welcome into our home!/How beautiful you are,/little shiny one, with your woolly hair . . . "

Van Riebeeck was celebrated as a founding father by the Afrikaners of South Africa, and the old Apartheid-era government used to celebrate a Van Riebeeck annual holiday. He remains a fraught and highly contested figure. Putter's video uses Van Riebeeck's wife to imagine an alternative history, a kinder trajectory for the clashes between black and white that defined so much of Africa's history. Putter's video is one of the few places where this painful history is directly represented in the new exhibition, and it says a lot about the tone that the curators wanted to set that the video treats that clash with complicated irony. Perhaps so complicated that most viewers won't detect it.

Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa's Arts is on long-term exhibition at the National Museum of African Art. For information. visit