Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - August 26, 2011

Africa across the ages

Museum visitors can trace African art from ancient bronzes to modern political pieces

by Leslie Shen

The two Nigerian women are dressed traditionally, in long, patterned garments with decorative head wraps. But the female figures are shaped from welded steel. They carry guns and are garlanded with bullets like violent jewelry.

Titled "Accessories Worn in the Delta," the sculpture examines the social ruin visited upon the Niger Delta by the oil industry, and is one piece among more than 200 in the newly redone African galleries at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center. According to curator Barbara Thompson, the breadth of media, regions, peoples and time periods represented in the exhibition should not only generate discussion about infrequently discussed issues, but also inspire reconsideration of what African art can be or say.

Hence the name of the exhibition, "Expanding Views of Africa." It's an ongoing show that includes paintings, jewelry, pottery and masks, from ancient to contemporary pieces.

"The exhibition is trying to open up our views of Africa, expand our understanding of African artistic production and meanings and symbolism," Thompson said.

Symbolism is apparent in "Accessories Worn in the Delta." In place of necklaces, the women bear the typical armaments of guerrilla fighters — a visual blow that both protests injustice and speaks to how the "fashioning" of bodies can reveal individual identity and community relationships.

"Because of the wealth that was promised to the local people but never actually came to the local people, there are a number of male youths who have become guerrilla fighters, who wreak havoc on the oil companies and sometimes on opposing factions," Thompson said. "There are various people vying for the money, vying for the power, and it's destroying communities. In this case (the artist) Sokari Douglas Camp is portraying women who have their flowered wrappers and beautiful head ties, but instead of accessorizing themselves with jewelry, the women are accessorizing themselves with weapons as the young men do. It's a very powerful piece."

The fact that the sculpture exists at all is a layer of commentary in itself.

"Sokari Douglas Camp is a woman, and women there are not allowed to work with metal," Thompson said. "So because she's working outside of Nigeria, she doesn't have the same cultural restrictions on the media that she uses."

Another piece working with the form and fashion of the body is a slender yet curvaceous clay pot by Kenyan artist Magdalene Odundo. The story behind the vessel, and behind that style of pottery, intimately links the Cantor's past to Odundo's.

"After she graduated from art school in the '70s, she came to Stanford to visit her cousin who was working at SLAC," Thompson said. "She came to the museum, saw the ancient Egyptian pottery we had on display and absolutely fell in love with it. After that she went to Idyllwild, a summer arts program, and had the opportunity to do a workshop with a very famous potter who does hand-built blackware. From that point Magdalene gave up wheel throwing and started hand-building pottery and refining what came to be her signature style. That was based on the very same pots she had seen here at Stanford, so I've taken some of those ancient Egyptian pots out of storage and put them on display so we can see what she was looking at."

Printed on the informational card near Odundo's vessel is a tiny QR code. Museum visitors who scan the code with a smartphone can access an interview with the artist.

"She talks about her memories of her mother's body, and how she sees her pots as being the body of a woman," Thompson said. "Her work is displayed both in African art galleries and in contemporary art galleries, which is the hope with this pot as well, that it will sort of migrate throughout the museum because it relates to so many different artistic traditions."

But art made in recent times is only the beginning. The room that houses Sokari Douglas Camp's steel sculpture and Magdalene Odundo's clay pot is devoted to the present, back to the 1950s. Farther into the exhibit, one finds another space filled with art of the 1500s to 1950s. The final gallery plumbs the depths of time as far back as Egypt before the pharaohs. And in the same way that the art is different from room to room, the surrounding design changes too.

"Each space is architecturally designed typical of that time period," Thompson said. "The contemporary gallery has rectilinear forms reflective of the kinds of buildings in Africa today; the historic gallery has the curvilinear forms that you would see in rural environments; and then the antiquities gallery is based on trapezoidal and pyramidal forms that are reflective of ancient Egyptian architecture. The idea is that one can experience the objects in the spatial environment of the context in which they were made."

While the space helps distinguish one time from the next, thematic currents unite them. "Fashioning the Body/Defining the Self" includes masks, hats, adornments of beads and shells, ancient pendants, figurines and vessels created with the human figure in mind. Gold and ivory play a part in "Economies and Exchanges in Africa and Beyond" and hint at a European colonial presence in the continent's history. Religion, rites of passage, birth, life, death and the afterlife are explored in "Moments of Transformation," often through ceremonial objects.

It seems that the thing to be especially aware of is African cultural diversity beyond the monolith of popular portrayal.

"I wanted to show the enormous breadth of art objects that are made within different African cultures," Thompson said. "We have things like pottery, iron, everyday containers, utilitarian objects, different kinds of textiles, the use of raffia and of animal hair. Within their own cultures, these are very important works of expression, but within our culture we haven't given the due respect to those objects because they haven't fallen within our spectrum of what we understand as fine art. Many times, something like a chief's hat is just as important, if not more important, than a mask. Within our own understanding, we might dismiss a hat as just being a hat, but within the culture itself, it has a lot of importance."

The exhibition opened on Aug. 3 and will continue indefinitely, which is an innovation, according to Thompson.

"I think there are very, very few museums that would have a permanent gallery devoted to African arts with as much diversity as you see here," she said.

What: "Expanding Views of Africa," an ongoing exhibition of contemporary, historic and ancient African art at the Cantor Arts Center.

Where: 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford University

When: The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and until 8 p.m. on Thursday.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to http://museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.

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