Black Artists in Tune With Ancestors : The spirit of traditional African art is alive and vibrant in Dallas exhibition

Morning visitors to the current special exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art are liable to find themselves waist-deep in troops of touring school kids getting an unmistakable kick from the show. The students are mainly black and they signal pleasure in typical kid fashion--whispering, grimacing and nudging when the docent is not looking.

The exhibition, on view to Feb. 25, is called "Black Art--Ancestral Legacy" and includes 150 works by some 50 African American artists from the U.S. and the Caribbean islands. It was organized by DMA adjunct curator Alvia Wardlaw with guest curators Regenia Perry and Edmund Barry Gaither. It will travel, but not to California, and that is certainly too bad since it represents the first large-scale attempt to show that the spirit of traditional African art is alive and vibrant in the work of modern African-American artists.

The merest scan of the galleries is enough to prove the point. Here is a metal statue by Ed Love looking like a Senufo totem recreated with the forms of automobile bumpers. There is Houston Conwill's rack of pigeon-hole shelves that suggests Dogon house facades. Nooks contain bas-relief cylinders that recall the magical juju bags of the Congo. A Dogon kanaga mask inspired a wood relief by Vusumuzi Maduna while Zulu color and beadwork inform charming, airy miniature floats by John Landry.

Earnest, stodgy catalogue essays concentrate quite rightly on this art as a function of black cultural history from slavery to Marcus Garvey's return-to-Africa movement, the Harlem Renaissance and on through the evermore militant waves which, beginning in the '50s, insisted both on black equality and the singularity of its aesthetic.

It is all intrinsically significant, but the show raises other issues so large as to be downright unwieldy. Black art, it seems, is no longer simply a function of itself but a symptom of a shift in the historical kaleidoscope that has lately been repatterning artistic taste.

The best of this art has always looked good. Today it carries extra force as if propelled on some newly discovered poetic jet-stream. The general impulse behind it is surely the recent reawakening of interest in what is called "Outsider Art."

In principle, that includes art made by people who are excluded from the cultural mainstream for reasons including everything from mental illness to cultural and geographic isolation. In practice, it tends to embrace any art form that is unfamiliar to art lovers, such as Australian aboriginal and Haitian voodoo art.

Since huge segments of the black population are still by unhappy definition culturally disenfranchised, some of the artists in this show make natural candidates for the outsider category.

David Miller Jr. was a Jamaican sculptor who died in 1977. His three carved wooden heads combine the classical dignity of Benin bronzes with the raw power of Easter Island heads. The color of the wood is so close to black skin that the stylized work warms realistically. Their squashed, elongated forms and exaggerated features are cousins to folk art but they would hold their own in any gallery of master sculpture. Funny how often black art echoes black music. Spirituals link to rhythm and blues by a structure that takes a solid core of tradition and embellishes it with riffs of emotion, wisdom and wit.

Born in South Carolina, David Pressley carved shallow reliefs like "When the Sharecropper Daughter Do a Dance," an apparently chaotic melange of country musicians and a nude girl dancing like a dervish--her sex wryly masked by the head of a bearded singer. Funky as all get out, it actually works because of the dignity and clarity of its underlying composition. Pressley got beyond mere anecdote. The dancer evokes the myth of Salome. In "Acapulco," her sister dances for a bull while she too wears the horns of virility. The Minotaur meets his match.

Traditional African art consists of endless variations on set themes and forms used in tribal rituals. Everybody knows about ancestral totems but that doesn't get us ready for the work of Bessie Harvey, who started making art in 1972 after raising 11 children. Painted sculptures like "Blissful Blessing" are fashioned of stumps with endless branches--family trees so to speak. You get a grotesque central figure with others sprouting from everywhere, out of pockets, ears, shoes, shopping bags. Probably has something to do with having all those kids. You gather she liked it, chaos and all.

Derek Webster is in the same ballpark with his wonderful enameled tree people but they are strutters, dancing the night away.

Everybody knows about African fetishes too, but that doesn't dilute the surprises of Renee Stout's life-size self-portrait sculpture with a box in her belly bearing a vintage photo of an infant dressed in European style.

The show resonates with wonderful offbeat talents, from the archaic turtles of William Edmondson to the primitive Egyptian heads of Mr. Imagination. Amos Ferguson comes up with paintings like "Polka Dot Junkanoo," whose poster shapes and clanging orange-and-green colors are down-home versions of Matisse and Stuart Davis.

This outsider-style work stands in such vivid contrast to contemporary mainstream art that one suspects our appreciation of it is, at least partly, a reaction against the cynical careerism, shallowness and commercialization of the dominant forms.

Black outsider art is heartfelt, intuitive and betrays no other motive for its making than the need to see it exist. It feels candid, trustworthy and intimate, like a talented friend with the wisdom to avoid the spotlight. It has an innocence that appeals to the kid visitors and makes us wish we had not lost our own.

Past civilizations produced mainstream styles out of the natural coherence of shared beliefs. Our global villages with their open networks of information and propaganda are fragmented, confused and often conflicted. A novelist is condemned to death for writing a book that insults the sensibilities of a religious cult and suddenly intellectuals question if it really is proper to trample on people's cherished beliefs in the name of free expression. Such dilemmas leave those who pay attention to these matters feeling inauthentic and tempted to retreat to private realms. That is what makes the intensely subjective art of the outsider attractive, despite its invitation to isolation and sentimental eccentricity.

The exhibition includes other, more culturally sophisticated art that illustrates both the perils and rewards of attempting to blend cultural contradictions.

Some of these artists tried to graft black and African themes to an art that is essentially European-academic. Nancy Elizabeth Prophet came up with a carved head of Baudelairean sensitivity, but Richmond Barthe made a figure of an African dancer that is emotionally convincing but formally uncomfortable. A string of academic draftsmen and painters never get their technique up to the level of their feelings.

Some of these African American artists must feel considerable ruefulness at the idea that the African artistic heritage was co-opted by European artists like Picasso and the German Expressionists before they could get to it. They work through a combination of African sources and modernist derivations. Too much Africa and you get an excessively archeological art, too much Modernism and you look like a copycat in your own tradition. Charles Searles works through the problem with aggravated aplomb in a parody of Picasso's African-cum-Cubist masterpiece "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." Despite individual merit, Ed Love's dancer series, "The Arkestra," falls right in Picasso's pocket.

There most assuredly ain't no justice.

"Black Art"--despite its special subcultural appeal--is an exhibition that addresses problems plaguing the larger art world and everybody else.

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