Re-Focusing on African and Oceanic Art
As a girl, I passed quickly through the MFA’s gallery of African and Oceanic Art. Even my mother, trained as an anthropologist and full of respect for non-Western cultures, as well as scorn for short-sighed colonizers and first-world chauvinists alike, couldn’t slow me down or muster much enthusiasm for those plain, clinical rooms where carved or woven objects from Africa and the Pacific were displayed in glass cases like scientific specimens. These exhibits still exist, of course, downstairs in the Museum’s Richard B. Carter Gallery, and although better explanatory texts now accompany the objects, providing some cultural context, museum-goers—from rowdy middle schoolers on a class trip to the ubiquitous, spryly elegant museum matrons—still rush through these rooms as if there were nothing in them to catch the attention.
Of course there is much here to catch the eye and capture the imagination—a diversity of carved masks for use in ritual, for example, or the wonderful knock-kneed, splay-legged sculptural figure in the Oceanic room whose lively, personable face I remember from childhood. But with the carefully, anthropologically neutral language of the texts and the spare displays, it can be hard to avoid the sense of these objects as deeply, bafflingly Other, the “primitive” works of “foreign” peoples. This, of course, is a result of a long tradition of Western collecting—call it Orientalism leavened with post-sixties cultural relativism—but none of it flatters the art, or really helps viewers know how to understand it as art, in stark contrast to the way folk art and fine art comfortably co-exist in the American galleries.
The exhibit Object, Image, Collector: African and Oceanic Art in Focus, on view upstairs at the MFA through July 18, provides a terrific, sympathetic, and incredibly smart corrective to all this. By charting the evolution of Western interest in and interaction with African and Oceanic objects, viewers gain a deeper understanding of how perception and presentation shape our sense of what is art. It’s a story of the early twentieth century, of wealthy collectors and avant-garde artists, European ethnographers and American aficionados. The history of the objects they collected, and the photographs that function as “surrogates” for those objects, is fascinating. Even better, the exhibit includes some beautiful, powerful pieces whose depth, humor, and meaning is allowed to emerge within the context of this sensitively-curated environment.
“This is an exhibition about perceptions, and how they shift over time,” states the main text on the wall as you enter. While most of the objects in the room began life with religious or functional purpose (from ritual figures to carved ladles to decorated currency blades), once taken out of their context by Westerners they became “ethnographic specimens or curiosities,” until, through the interest of avant-garde artists, they acquired a new status as legitimate art. And, as the curators point out, photography as a medium was on a similar trajectory at this time: first seen as a purely functional documentary tool, it later came to be understood as a serious art form. These two arcs come together in the art photographs, ethnographic albums, and museum publications included in this show, all of which placed the image of the object in new contexts and made it available even to those who could not see it in person. There’s a wonderful take on the old “artist contemplating a Classical bust” image, a photograph by Clara Sipprell, which shows enthusiast Max Weber fondly gazing at a small carved figure. Intellectuals like him were among the first to believe that non-Western people had something to offer European and American artists.
In contrast to the downstairs gallery, the objects in this exhibition don’t belong to the Museum, but are gathered from more than a dozen private collections. Though none of these collections pre-date 1950, many of the objects are much older than that, having been in the West for close to a hundred years, purchased first by some of the great art collectors of the twentieth century in Paris or New York. Others have a more intimate history, like the wonderful baboon mask (carved from wood and enhanced by real teeth), with its perfectly simian ears and amiably sinister snout, which was bought and brought home by Peace Corps volunteers in Burkino Faso in the late sixties.
One of the best things about this show, it must be said, is the smart writing and sophisticated concepts. It’s a wonderful read, even independent of the objects on display—though one of the exhibit’s flaws may be, unfortunately, that there isn’t enough interaction between what the texts tell you and what you see. Viewers are told about the Modernists’ affinity for African art, and the fascination of surrealists with Polynesia, but we don’t see much evidence of it. The exhibit would make its points more forcefully if we could. How wonderful it would be to see the influence of African aesthetics on an artist like Picasso by seeing one of his paintings or drawings next to an object to which it responds! Ultimately, it feels like a lot of telling and not enough showing; the exhibit would be even more educative and fascinating if we could see more of the European artists in dialogue with the objects by which they were inspired. It’s terrific to see the influence going the other way, as in the sculpture from around 1920, made entirely of wood, in which a female form is fused with a realistically carved metal pipe, demonstrating the influence of Western invention on art in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Similarly, a young woman’s beaded apron, made about 1970, includes the stylized but immediately recognizable silhouette of an airplane. Clearly, influence is reciprocal.
Some of the most interesting pieces here were created by anonymous artists from the Bamana peoples of Mali, including a number of suggestively equine headdresses. There’s a carved, dark-wood figure of a mule’s head that I liked particularly for its smooth, detailed surface and intelligent face. The curators tell us that it’s a prop used in parodic performances which set up and then mock figures of authority—part of Bamana culture’s engagement with egalitarianism, but also evidence, perhaps, for the affinity (imagined or real) between radical Westerners and the societies that produced this kind of art.
There is also a beautiful and wonderfully-displayed mask and costume, commissioned in 1974, by the master carver and textile artist Lawrence Ajanaku of Ogiriga, Okpella. Colorful and elaborate, it’s shown not full-front on a hanger as one might expect, but on a flexible cloth model which sits, one leg extended, in a natural pose, giving viewers an idea of how the costume might be worn in its original context. The Oceanic art, too, is lovely. I admired, in particular, a Fijian bowl in the shape of a stylized flying bird that is so full of movement with so little evidence of artifice that you can see why European artists, sick of what they perceived as the ornate decadence of their own aesthetic tradition, would be drawn to works like this.
Two of the most arresting pieces in the room are by contemporary African American artists. The first is a pair of related works, one a collage, the other a photoetching and aquatint, both by Romare Bearden. The collage takes its images from magazine photographs of African sculpture and masks, crowding them together in what seems to be an urban scene, and the later etching echoes the collage, using it almost as a blueprint. It’s the photoetching, a 1974 work called “The Train,” that is really breath-taking. It seems to take on the complicated issues of the African Diaspora, the art it produced, and Western views of that art, as well as presenting a moment from the struggle for Civil Rights. The faces that look out at us from the page are communicative and knowing, their gazes complicated and reproachful, and the liquid softness of the watercolor combines with the horizontal lines of the etching to create a beautiful, powerful work you can stand in front of for a long time.
The other piece is Willie Cole’s “Silex Male: Ritual,” a huge digital print of a standing figure, front and back, in the style of nineteenth century anthropological photography. Cole uses his own body in the image, and creates the costume worn by the man of the imaginary Silex people with overlapping prints made by a household iron. It’s a beautiful interpretation of the violence, as well as the stupid silliness, of a certain kind of ethnographic presentation, the use of the iron suggesting at once ritualized body modification, the brands of slavery, and the intrusion of consumer culture. This huge, compelling print takes on so much of what the exhibit is exploring on a broader scale, but it seems disconnected from the rest of the show. African American responses, both to African art and to Western treatments of that art, could be much more central to this exhibit—and the contemporary equivalent of the Oceanic side of things is entirely absent. I wonder what the inclusion of more contemporary art of this kind would tell us? To what collections do those works belong?
This exhibit is provocative, informative, and intriguing. It roused my curiosity and left me with questions—a much better reaction than the one the downstairs rooms evoke, which is interesting since the two shows have a number of objects in common. Somehow, the fascinating and beautiful sailing chart of palm and cowrie shells and the gentle-faced Mano masks seem more approachable in this context. Though I came away feeling that the exhibit could do more, perhaps “doing more”—learning more, engaging more, seeing more, thinking more about these fascinating and complex issues—is incumbent on the viewer. This is a show that will introduce a museum-goer to powerful art and intriguing history. It presents complicated issues, brings us face to face with layered historical and aesthetic interactions, and suggests the difficult moral and political forces at work. How incredible it would be to see this nuanced, historicized treatment applied to the MFA’s own collection of African and Oceanic Art. Object, Image, Collector is a smart, beautiful show that should be seen for itself. If you do attend, I’ll bet you’ll walk more slowly through the Richard B. Carter rooms next time.
Katherine Hollander reviews art for the “California Literary Review.” Her poetry and literary criticism have been published in “Pleiades,” “AGNI Online,” “Open City” and elsewhere. She is currently a graduate student of European history at Boston University.