The extraordinary artifacts created by African artists have fascinated the world over for centuries. Probably the most notable objects are the masks and figurative sculptures, with their distinctive carvings, evocative features and uniquely expressive meanings.
Many of the objects, which are handmade of ivory, wood, brass, fibers and textiles, were used specifically for religious ceremonies, spiritual rituals and cultural celebrations within various African societies. While the description and significance of numerous objects have been uncovered and recorded by art historians and anthropologists, as well as collectors, the meanings for others remain unidentified.
It is amazing that the art made by people who were repressed for centuries, for purposes such as to mark graves and to honor important figures within their culture, have become treasured objects of continuous study.
Within many societies, art is often conceived to reflect its creators’ perceptions and interpretations. So it seems only natural for African artists to produce art to reflect their wide range of attitudes in regards to the dramatic changes in their cultural relationships.
The groundbreaking exhibit “Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present” showcases just that: African art objects that comment on and depict the interactions between Africans and Europeans and Westerners, from the earliest trade interactions to European settlement on the continent, from colonization to post-independence. With more than 20 African countries represented, including Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, and nearly 100 figurative sculptures and items such as staffs, drums and thrones on display, the exhibit is impressive.
“African attitudes, ideas and perceptions toward Europeans were never static, but they rather changed with every new experience,” says Nii Quarcoopome, Ph.D., curator of African Art and head of the Africa, Oceania and Indigenous Americas Department at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where the exhibit will run until Aug. 8, 2010. Unlike many of the much-admired and embraced traditional African art, which Africans produced for occasions that ranged from everyday use to royal ceremonies, many of the objects in this exhibit were made for European consumption. Some were never used in Africa. Europeans, in fact, commissioned several of the works from African artists.
“Some of the objects were made with an emphasis on the technology that Europeans introduced to African culture, such as airplanes and firearms. And those objects are a way to acknowledge those technologies as a manifestation of perceived mystical powers,” the curator adds.
“Through African Eyes” is the first art exhibition to present a combination of figures and utilitarian objects that paint a complete picture of how Africans have documented and interpreted their relationships with Europeans. Quarcoopome, a native of Ghana who received his doctorate in African art history from the University of California at Los Angeles and previously was a curator at the Newark Museum, had worked on the exhibit for 10 years. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he began conducting research and laying groundwork for the show.
With this exhibit, Quarcoopome says, they set out to draw attention to the complexity of the objects and their meanings and the significance associated with them. For example, there was Africans’ fascination with eyeglasses — something so simple yet so involved upon interpretation. “First, there is this indication of second sight, or clairvoyance” he says. “Second, eyeglasses, since they were worn by the Europeans who visited Africa, were also associated with intelligence. Wearing them made the person believe they looked knowledgeable. At least that was the notion. Third, Akan chiefs wore them believing it a display of cosmopolitan taste. And when chiefs cast eyeglasses of sold gold, it was a display of wealth of the court.”
Another instance of complex interpretation focuses on headgear. The show includes several items, as well as photographs of chiefs wearing various styles of hats and helmets. Donning a hat, such as a top hat or a bowler, was considered more than a mere fashion statement. It signified orders of power, indicating economic, political and religious rankings. The show also features a number of toy vehicles made by South African children of scrap metal and wire. Though they are toys, the miniature trucks and cars are said to be representative of the armored vehicles that intimidated townships during apartheid. “The works collected here represent the broad spectrum of African reaction to European presence, be it love, respect, reverence, mockery, and in
some instances, outright hatred,” says Quarcoopome.
“Through African Eyes” travels to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City after its Detroit debut.