More than 200 works are given cultural and religious contexts, as well as aesthetic appreciation.
FORT WORTH — The vast expansion of France’s colonial empire in 19th-century Africa increasingly exposed Europeans to cultures and creations of very different worlds. Artifacts, even people, from French colonies attracted considerable curiosity — and, yes, imperial condescension — at a succession of Paris Expositions.
African masks caught the attention of Picasso, who made them a pivotal influence on modern European art. With the African masked figures in the 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, in a jumble of faceted bodies and drapery, Cubism was born. The stylized simplification of African images would also influence other artists, including Brancusi, Modigliani, Giacometti and the German expressionists.
It’s through the lenses of those early 20th-century European artworks that we continue to see traditional African art and artifacts. We still marvel at the stylized geometries of the human figures and imaginative detail work here and there. But a major exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum, “The Language and Beauty of African Art,” encourages us to consider the works’ cultural and religious inspirations and significance.
Organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, although first displayed here, the show includes more than 200 items from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from West, Central and Southern African cultures.
With facial features so different from Europeans, Africans celebrated very different notions of human beauty. Although the best artisans were clearly very skilled, they tended to render faces not naturalistically but in somewhat abstracted and idealized forms. Some figures incorporate the geometrical scarification prized in some cultures. Some sculptural images are quite abstracted, notably reliquary figures of the Kota people.
Statues both small and great also signal power, vitality and significance, notably with elongated torsos. Outsize heads signify intelligence. Macho power threatens with bulging eyes and protruding teeth.
Although the societies were overwhelmingly patriarchal, women were valued as life-givers and advisers, sometimes even crowning kings. A veranda post by the master carver Olowe of Ise portrays a queen towering over the petite king.
Ceremonial masks and headdresses, to ward off evil spirits or invite benevolent forces, can be elaborate, incorporating metals, animal horns, beads and grasses. Some are quite abstracted, notably a headdress from the Bamana culture of Mali. Curves and zigzags exquisitely carved in wood suggest the area’s small antelopes, but just barely.
Delicately carved and elaborately beaded domestic items range from pipes and cups to a fanciful stool sandwiched around an imaginary leopard’s body. Often more ceremonial than practical, such artifacts signal prosperity — a bit of conspicuous consumption, if you will.
The exhibition’s most startling creations are carved male and female power figures covered all over with nails and blades. These represent connections between the living and the dead, their intercessory and protective power enhanced by herbal concoctions placed in head and body cavities. The most extravagant examples, owned by kings or chiefs, were employed in dramatic public performances.
More than a century after first taken seriously by European artists, African artifacts have lost none of their ability to amaze. The Kimbell exhibition refreshes them with new perspectives and contexts, elaborated in a hefty 356-page catalog.
Details “The Language of Beauty in African Art” runs through July 31 at the Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth. Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday noon to 8 p.m.; Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Museum admission is free. Special exhibition $18; discounts for students, educators, seniors, military personnel; free for children under 6. Half-price admission on Tuesdays and after 5 p.m. on Fridays. 817-332-8451, kimbellart.org.
SOURCE- Dallas Morning News