African Art Museum

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This is the African Art Museum, not the African American History and Culture Museum. This museum is about art from the continent of Africa, and it includes art from white people in Africa. It was started in 1963 by Warren Roberts (a U.S. Foreign Service officer) to "show the rich creative heritage of Africa, and to underscore the implications of this heritage in America's quest for interracial understanding." It contains art from pre-colonial times through the modern era.

The Museum

The museum itself is behind the Smithsonian Castle and almost all underground. It is on the East side of the castle, opposite the Freer-Sackler Gallery, which it connects to underground. I really love the space. In terms of the building itself, I would have to say that this is my favorite museum so far. It has a large open exhibit hall in the middle, that is two stories high. On the story above there are two exhibit halls on either side, and a balcony over looking the lower hall and between the two upper halls. So from the windows in one of the upper halls, you can see down into the lower hall and across to the other upper hall. And from the balcony you can see into all three halls. But don't think it is limited to those three exhibit halls, there are more halls than that and they are crammed full of art.

I am ...

The first exhibit I went into was one of contemporary female artists from Africa. There was one really pompous piece, made by "one artists in two bodies" who planted a tree on a beach so they could film on of their bodies merging with the earth to symbolize blah blah blah. However, there was some really nice stuff in the rest of the exhibit. A lot of interesting materials and perspectives on the future and the past. I particularly liked Diane Victor's piece done with smoke on paper and Nike Davies-Okundaye's paintings incorporating traditional Yoruba textile patterns.

There was a beautiful piece by Sue Williamson called The Last Supper Revisited. It was artifacts from the rubble of District Six, which was destroyed by the Apartheid government in South Africa. The pieces were encased in resin and lit from below. It was a wonderful effect, but not something I could photograph well with my phone. That was the day I realized I'd lost my point and shoot digital camera that I'd had for years.

Good as Gold

The next exhibit was about the gold trade of Senegal, and the jewelry that was designed there. Senegal had a River of Gold, including sites at Bambouk and Galam, where gold was mined from the 4th century through the 19th. It was this gold trade that lured Europeans down the western coast of Africa.

While Europeans traded along the coast from the 15th century onward, they only scratched the surface of the trade network. The Senegalese traded across North Africa and into the Middle East, as well as elsewhere througout the African continent. The gold was relatively easy to transport, and styles and techniques were transported along with the gold.

In current times Dakar is the capital of Senegal and the capital of fashion in West Africa. There is a distinction in Dakar between mode, the world of fashion, and sanse, a more complicated idea involving fashion, culture, and ethics. The ensemble piece by Oumou Sy was meant to challenge divisions between the two, and between modern and traditional styles.

I found the geometric styles of some of the Senegalese work very interesting, but that's probably just because I'm a math geek. I don't know that those styles would work well with Western clothing styles. However, I think there could be a nice hybrid between the two, leaning toward the geometries of Senegalese work but with a softer implementation.

50 Years

One of the lower halls had an exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the museum, from the time it was a private museum in a former residence of Frederick Douglas to its present day status as part of the Smithsonian. It was a fascinating collection spanning centuries of African culture. I especially liked the Nokia coffin, and how it represents the massive changes that cell phone have brought to Africa.

Main Hall

The main lower hall had a wide range of art from many centuries. My notes are not clear if this was a specific installation or a bunch of them (my write up of this museum post-dates me seeing it by several months). But it was really fascinating to see the breadth of art over time. I was also struck by the frequent referencing to the past. This includes the mixing of traditional forms with modern materials and styles, and the strong cultural elements that are shown in the art. Western art often seems obsessed with forgetting the past and forging into the new. But here and with the art in the American Indian Museum I saw a strong connection with the past, or at least a reaching out for the past. As a Buddhist I am pulled to the present, but Buddhism also gives me a strong belief in cause and effect. To truly see the present, you have to understand the past that shaped it, but without getting too wrapped up in it.

Another theme that I noticed was the communication in the art. There is the standard use of cultural icons to convey meaning that you see in many art forms. But there was also the use of pattern and symbol to convey meaning that I don't see a lot in art. Having an interest in linguistics as well as codes and ciphers, I found it fascinating.

There was also a wonderful exhibit on the art of African blacksmiths, but I didn't get any good pictures from it. It was hard to get good lighting of the pieces, or to capture the incredible detail of the etchings.