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ART REVIEW : Auspicious Bow for African Art Museum

TIMES ART CRITIC

The new Museum for African Art has opened with an exhibition that does double duty.

Articulated with a variety of often arresting masks, architectural sculptures, textiles, reliquary objects and a carved and painted dance enclosure, its fascinating subject is secrecy. A variety of African cultures make objects that declare the presence of secret knowledge, while simultaneously keeping the secret hidden. The paradoxical result is a presentation that clues us in on the presence of meanings that are intentionally covert.

Provocative and illuminating in its own right, the show also stands as an ironic marker for the museum--a kind of public declaration of its status as a “best-kept secret in town.” Formerly the Center for African Art, and housed since 1984 in a pair of townhouses on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the renamed Museum for African Art has now moved to SoHo’s Broadway. Adjacent to the New Museum of Contemporary Art and down the block from the Guggenheim Museum’s SoHo branch, it completes a downtown cluster far from the uptown “museum mile.”

Two floors of the deep, narrow, loft-building were redesigned by architect Maya Lin of Vietnam Veterans Memorial fame, who worked with a very tight budget of half a million dollars. The public spaces open at the front with a sizable shop selling books and gifts--these days, the clearest sign you really have entered the nonprofit precinct of a museum--and finally arrive at an organically curved reception desk. Most of the colors are dark and earthy--walls painted brown or covered in indigo fabric, floor stained a beautiful blue-green--save for the vivid yellow module behind the desk, which houses a small office and a dramatic staircase that ascends from the lower floor.

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Beyond the yellow module the 17,000 square feet of galleries begin--a single large room, actually, subdivided by free-standing walls. A staircase at the rear, painted a pearly gray, continues the easy flow of spaces to the lower floor, where the sequence of galleries arrives at the yellow stair that returns the visitor to the start.

The front and rear stairs are the most emphatic features in the design of the museum’s public spaces, for they feature surprisingly curved and tilted walls, eccentrically placed windows and unusually crafted railings. They have a hand-wrought, pre-industrial feel, which accentuates an almost ritual quality to their function as passages for descent and ascent.

The design couldn’t be more different from the crisp white interiors and concrete or natural wood floors common to downtown exhibition spaces. The difference is appropriate for the special dilemma of a Museum for African Art. For a museum is, by definition, a Western idea about the wisdom of and necessity for the collection, study and display of culturally revered objects. When the culture whose objects are displayed is African, the conflicted history of colonial occupation by the West inevitably looms.

Lin’s decision to abandon the contemporary Western ideal for exhibition spaces was a good one, as were her choices of both an organic organization of space and a palette in keeping with the largely 19th- and early 20th-Century African ritual objects on display. If the spotlighted darkness of the galleries yields a slightly theatrical edge to the installation, at least the design has attempted to draw the exhibition context from the nature of the objects themselves.

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In this regard it’s worth noting the institution’s chosen name. In declaring itself a museum for , rather than of , African art, it assumes a quietly activist pose. The museum does not collect; instead, it assembles carvings, tapestries, costumes and other traditional African art for the purpose of elucidation. The scholarly difficulty, and even the ethical conundrum, inherent to this endeavor are part of the ongoing investigation of the museum.

“Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals” demonstrates how. The last room of the show holds a display of Dogon figures, perhaps the single most-studied African art by Westerners. The point of the display is not to show what we have learned about, say, the Dogon culture’s elegantly carved equestrian and hermaphroditic figures. The point is to show how diverse, even contradictory assumptions and assertions continue to be made about them.

Some have claimed the equestrian represents the village priest. Others argue that it is a primordial being. Still others assert that it is purely mythical, or represents the forces of change.

Not only have the Dogon carvings kept their secrets well, they pose a daunting question: What right do outsiders have to the carefully constructed and concealed knowledge of another culture?

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The question is especially acute when the objects under consideration are ritual works of art. Mary H. Nooter, the curator who ably organized this provocative exhibition of often stunning objects, notes in the show’s excellent catalogue how Westerners commonly associate secrecy with sinister, or at least negative, connotations. This culturally circumscribed conception clashed with the equally circumscribed--but opposite--connotations of secrecy in many African societies.

In the era of colonial conquest, rituals predicated on secrecy were seen by Western eyes as ominous. The profound significance of secret knowledge contributed to the debilitating Western invention of an image of Africa as a Dark Continent, filled with deep and foreboding mysteries and in need of “enlightenment,” typically by the introduction of Christian faith.

The exhibition includes nearly 100 objects, all from sub-Saharan Africa, and they’re organized cross-culturally in a clever way. Since secrets told are secrets destroyed, the show groups its objects to ask a series of questions instead. For example, how do secrets create boundaries?

Secrets have as a principal function the division of people into a hierarchy of initiated and uninitiated. Typically, these divisions are based on gender, age or class. Even these blunt boundaries have refined layers of complexity.

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A Songye mask from Zaire can be read as female by the white face, the black band descending from the forehead and the absence of a crest. However, the remaining stylistic features of this extraordinary head--its heavily hooded eyes, squared and protruding mouth, pattern of scarification and such--can only be read by those more deeply traveled along the lifelong path of tribal initiation.

Secrets are odd because their power is two-fold: Power lies in the content, but it’s only effective when you know that a secret is present. The Songye mask is an outward sign meant, in part, to plainly articulate that something is hidden.

A Fon tradition of carving exemplifies the personal secret. Small, stake-like figurines bound with twine often feature a peg protruding from the head. It plugs the hole into which its owner has whispered an important secret, which must be spoken yet must be kept. When you see the figure you know it holds a secret, but the secret is unknowable.

A Yombe power figure, almost fully encased in cloth bundles, gets its power from the medicinal crystals hidden inside the reeds that are themselves secreted inside the bundles. Only with X-ray examination could the contents of the bundles be discovered by Western eyes, without dismantling the figure and thus destroying it.

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Perhaps the most arresting object in the show is one whose meaning is extremely obscure, known only by the Komo association of the Bamana people of Mali. Made of packed earth and (you should pardon the expression) “dried organic material,” this ballooning, animal-like form, said by some to represent the universe, is an altar used for ritual sacrifice. Through use, it is believed to have become a reservoir of knowledge.

“Secrecy” is an auspicious way for the Museum for African Art to have begun its tenure in a newly expanded, more prominent home. For in addition to assembling remarkable works of art in an illuminating manner, it’s a show whose subtle subtext poses questions about the hidden limitations of any museum devoted to African art.

Museum for African Art, 593 Broadway, New York, (212) 966-1313, through Aug. 15. Closed Monday and Tuesday.


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