Encounters: The Arts of Africa at the Krannert Art Museum
Guest Writer: Laura Barone

Friday, December 14, 2012

posted under , by Unit for Criticism

Panorama view of the Encounters installation.
[On October 12, 2012 the Krannert Art Museum opened Encounters: The Arts of Africa, an installation curated by Allyson Purpura. The guest-written post below is by Laura Barone, a graduate student affiliate of the Unit for Criticism in Art History.]

Written by Laura Barone (Art History)

The new African art installation at the Krannert Art Museum (KAM) has a few surprises. Yes, there are striking masks, detailed bronzes, and religious figurines in glass cases, but there are also contemporary African American photographs, Ethiopian healing scrolls, and script-inspired text paintings. Curator of African Art Allyson Purpura has framed the works (about 70 from KAM’s own collection and others on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Wyoming Art Museum, and the University of Illinois’ Spurlock Museum) within a discourse of narratives, stories, and critical histories. Avoiding pitfalls which can result when African art is organized by geographical location or time period, Purpura has curated the works thematically along with five iPads, located at various points around the gallery, to provide additional information about artworks, artists, and regions.

“The Art of Small Things.”
“What thrills me the most about this exhibition is the overall premise, the overall interpretive treatment… which is to say that objects can tell stories beyond themselves… about the broader social context in which they are embedded and even more importantly the broader journeys they traveled to get here,” Purpura said in an interview in the gallery. The thematic groupings through which this premise is explored are The Power of Script, The Art of Small Things, The Art of Masking, Re-Purposing Art, Fraught Histories, Objects of Encounter, The Creativity of Power, Orisha: Yoruba Art, Spirit and Diaspora, and Reading the Body. For example, “Fraught Histories” explicitly addresses some pieces in the museum’s collection that arrived through questionable means (e.g., with little or no documentation); yet until such issues are resolved, the museum is charged with the care of the object. Rather than stay hidden in storage, bringing such objects out into view in the gallery, such as a bronze, Benin hip mask from Nigeria, acknowledges issues of imperialism, colonialism and post-colonialism out in the open. The objects, in addition to being aesthetic works in and of themselves, can also become documents of such troubling relationships if, as Purpura emphasized, “you choose to unpack that.”

The words “narrative” and “journey” recur throughout the wall text and allow the exhibit to address the contingent elements of time and space as opposed the idea of art as static or timeless. One way this is achieved is by including works from the African diaspora as part of the larger story of African art and artists. African American artist Willie Cole’s D-Force Tji Wara St (2002), an interpretation of Bamana artists in Mali’s chi wara headcrests through used bicycle parts, is one of many pleasant surprises among the exhibition. As are two photographs by Carrie Mae Weems, who is also African American, which similarly play upon a dialogue with a particular type of African work. Penca de Balangandãs or “cluster of charms” were possibly made by Muslim metal smiths of slave descent and worn by Afro-Brazilian women from the 17th to the 19th centuries. These artworks exemplify the cultural, religious, ethnic, and aesthetic interchanges typical of diasporic artifacts. Cuban American artist Vivian Pupo’s Lucumi Oché or Chango Dance Wand (2010) is a fully-beaded, red and white thunder-axe used in ceremonial dances, and obtained through a family-run mail order service to religious devotees. Even though only three works focus explicitly on the diaspora, Purpura notes that all “the objects themselves are diasporic” in the sense that they all made it to the museum.

“Repurposing Art.”
By providing interactive maps, artist interviews, performances, and other insights relating to the artworks, the five iPads are intended not to compete with, but to enhance the art, according to Purpura. Not to be missed is the iPad on the display case with objects related to the theme of “Reading the Body.” It includes information on the striking, subtly feminized black vessel by Kenyan-born and London-based ceramic artist Magdalene Odundo as well as performance and interview clips by Nora Chipaumire, a contemporary dancer born in Zimbabwe and now based in Brooklyn who had a residency with KAM in 2011.

Even during a casual view of the exhibit, one will notice many efforts to disrupt and contemplate a conventional notion of what “The Arts of Africa” might entail. The Weems and Cole works are excellent examples of this effect, but so are the Islamic wall hangings from Senegal, the turquoise Egyptian miniature figurine, and Nigerian-British Rotimi Fani-Kayodé’s stunning 1989 photograph incorporating a Dan mask and addressing a cultural, racial and sexual sense of ‘otherness.’ Clearly, any sort of notion of a unified African culture, religion, or tradition is replaced by interdisciplinary and intercultural dialogues and, in effect, encounters, between media, time, social practices, and space.


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Alma Gottlieb said...

Wonderful review, wonderful exhibit!

Alma Gottlieb said...

Wonderful review, wonderful exhibit!

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