When museums display African art and Modern art together, they generally do so to illustrate how seeing Africa’s arresting masks and fantastic figures helped Picasso and other Modern artists escape the constraints of Realism and move into Cubism, Surrealism and Dadaism.
But in a new gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, African art is framed as a contemporary art form in its own right, not just an aesthetic enabler for a century of Modern artists. “Tradition as Innovation in African Art,” curated by Polly Nooter Roberts, an African art expert at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, is the debut of a partnership between the museums that will display African works in a prominent space at the plaza entrance to the Ahmanson Building’s Modern art collection.
The gallery, in full view of a monumental black geometric Tony Smith sculpture, will hold African art exhibitions that will be rotated annually, said LACMA Deputy Director Nancy Thomas, in a dynamic rearrangement that pushes the mostly 19th and 20th century African pieces to center stage.
“This is the start of a long-term permanent program for African art at LACMA, and part of our goal is to reposition African art within the context of a general art museum,” Thomas said. Previously, LACMA displayed a small African selection in a less prominent Ahmanson gallery near ancient art of the Americas.
“People think of [African artists] as being ancient inspiration, when in fact they’re contemporaries,” said LACMA Director Michael Govan. Their work is “not just inspiration for an avant-garde. It’s alive. You look at these pieces and say: Does Modern art get any better?”
Roberts, the deputy director and chief curator at the Fowler, who selected the works in the show, seeks to present African art in its own context. The Janus-faced forest guardian figure from the Niger Delta that towers over the gallery entrance with a sword in his hand and a simian on his head was created to protect villagers from perils that lurk in the forest, the exhibition explains.
The Ijo wood piece is among works drawn from Southern California private collections. Several pieces are from LACMA’s relatively small collection, but nearly half the compact display was borrowed from the extensive African collection at the Fowler. The museum also lent Roberts, who first experienced Africa as a diplomat’s daughter in Liberia and Tanzania and has worked in such places as Senegal, Ivory Coast and Congo.
The concept behind the exhibition was best articulated by the artistic credo of the Yoruba, a West African people who came to the New World as slaves, bringing a living cultural influence that is celebrated from Cuba to Brazil.
Yoruba philosopher Olabiyi Yai says tradition implies innovation, Roberts said -- meaning that African pieces that “appear traditional” may actually be part of their culture’s avant-garde. There is even a Yoruba name, Are, for “the artist as explorer,” she said, “the itinerant artist on a spiritual quest, on the move in a conceptual sense. The Yoruba say that the best artist is the one who can transcend the boundaries of the known world and go out to the edges.”
One example of Are, Roberts said, is the exhibition’s majestic Yoruba Epa mask of a horseman, covered with white Pointillist dots that shimmer with movement. The speckles denote Ashe, a charismatic personal power or life force.
The emerging attempt to embrace African art on its own terms follows a century-long love affair with its forms; Modern artists popularized African art by appropriating those forms. But a neocolonial fascination with exoticism misread the art’s meaning. Elements of its nudity were misunderstood as erotic, and pieces carefully designed to address social status, fertility or death were miscast as uninhibited self-expression.
One of the enigmatic pieces in the LACMA exhibit is a Kota sculpture, a small human figure with a crescent-crowned head, that was once owned by a founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton. Kota figures inspired such artists as Picasso and Ernst by their ability to deliver maximum visual impact with the strong silhouettes and clean lines now associated with Modernism.
But in Africa, Kota figures are anything but simple. They are reliquary guardians that protect containers of bones of the deceased and ward away trespassers -- and a powerful bridge to the spirit world.
“For Modernists, they are remarkable for their simplicity,” Roberts said. “For Kota people, there’s a whole different association with how they connect to the deceased.”
The Kota piece may have been bought directly from Breton and the poet and Surrealist co-founder Paul Eluard by American-British pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome. The Wellcome Trust’s collection was the foundation for the Fowler’s African holdings and is a rich source for the new partnership with LACMA, which includes plans for collaborations on pre-Columbian art and more.
Govan said he was surprised to learn there was no department of African art at LACMA when he became director in 2006. “Crazy, right?” he said. “How could that be, in an encyclopedic museum?
“This makes it a priority,” he said, as he stood in the gallery with Thomas and Roberts, watching craftsmen put the tops on some of the pedestals holding the art. “It’s not just about Modern art but about modern eyes. The big giant question mark that looms over the avant-garde is, ‘What is innovation?’ ”
Govan stood before one piece, entwining an antelope and an aardvark, so streamlined it could illustrate a calculus equation.
“Tell me, what is more Modern than that?” Govan said. “It’s a masterpiece.”
Next, workmen unfurled a Kuba textile whose dynamic field of geometric, deliberately asymmetrical branching forms seemed as starkly modern as the sculpture dominating the foyer.
“Eat your heart out, Stuart Davis,” Govan said as the textile went up, drawing a comparison to an artist whose drawings hang in a nearby gallery. “The use of varied patterns -- it’s all there. . . . It forces you to consider the nature of art, and the nature of innovation.”
Viewers can find comparisons of their own in LACMA’s nearby collection of German Expressionism, where early 20th century woodcuts show clear influences of groundbreaking African images that helped European artists break free.
Some hope the exhibition will help viewers break free from the way they categorize art.
Marla Berns, the director of the Fowler, said she has been surprised that critics of African art shows at the Fowler have insisted on terming the works “ethnographic art, or artifacts.”
“Why is it that people have such a hard time accepting it as art?” she said. “By putting the [African art] where LACMA has put it . . . they are reinforcing the point that this is art with a capital A, worthy of the same kind of contemplation and appreciation as any art form.”