Art Road Trip: National Museum of African Art

National Museum of African Art
Washington, DC

Placed here b/c Achebe was once on the UMass faculty

Click on images for bigger size 

Last month, I paid a visit to my one-time undergraduate mentor—now dear friend—Charles Loucks. We reminisced about what might have done differently had we had been aware back then what we'd like to know or do now. One thing I definitely would have done is study African art in a serious way. This made my trip to Washington DC especially sweet, as it's the only museum devoted entirely to African art in the nation.

Art is the ultimate subjective discipline. Why does one person love a particular style, but not another? Try as I will, for example, I simply can't generate enthusiasm for Japanese painting, yet I have friends who can't get enough of it. I'm that way about African art. I like the fact that even art that is produced for display retains elements of utility. I also admire qualities sometimes called "folk art" when they appear in Western art, though I'm leery of that label as it's too often used to suggest that it's not as accomplished as so-called "fine" art. Oddly, we often lump Picasso and Matisse into the fine art category, though both of them acknowledged their debt to African masks and sculpture.

Mainly I love the diversity in African art—even when universal themes are present, no two African cultures render these the same way. There's also an earthy solidity to form that appeals to me that also shapes color palettes. You'll see much more brown, rust, yellow ochre, and such like in African art. And I really admire the fact that there's little frippery present; if I had to pick the period of art I like the least, hands-down it's European Baroque.

To return to my regret, I am self-taught in all that I know about African art and—I'm sorry to say—it's not much. I have attached some things I liked from my July trip to DC and comments on why, but offer apologies if I've misinterpreted anything. 

This powerful piece is called Apartheid Laboratory and the symbolism should be obvious, right down to an evocation of an electric chair.

 Ethiopia was Christianized very early and a lot of its art evokes Byzantine icons.

This was worn on the head in Sierra Leone, a nation founded by the British to resettle freed slaves and akin to Liberia, which was set up for that reason by the USA. In each case, resettled slaves entered lands already settles by others and--in a great irony--conquered indigenous peoples. The above is in the spirit of original peoples.

 This is a helmet mask from Nigeria. Note there are faces on all sides.

 An initiation panel from Congo. Boys often lived in separate houses as they prepared to be initiated into adulthood. In some lands this involved painful circumcision as the boys were generally over age 12.

 This is from Gabon and all I can say is it makes me happy. To me it evokes a cross between a baboon and an old man. I'm pretty sure that's me and not its intent!

From Benin. Benin was once an empire with a warrior class. As you can see, they maintianed a horse cavalry.

This massive contemporary piece is a comment on eternity. It's forged of metal, looks like rubber, and depicts a snake swallowing its own tail. The latter is an image found many places in the world, including Ireland.

This frightening object was worn on the crest of the head. It's from Nigeria.

I really love this pacific Yoruba figure from Nigeria. It reminds me of Buddhas found in Southeast Asia.

Many tribes, kinship groups, and clans are headed by a figure whose status better translates as "Big Man" rather than chief. This is from Ghana and takes the Big Man concept literally!
Another one that simply makes me happy. From Cameroon.

More recent painting from Tanzania. A reminder that Africans are sailors and fishers as well. And maybe a reminder that if we trash the waters of the Indian Ocean, it deprives millions of their livelihoods.

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