The Yale University Art Gallery has covered one of its first floor galleries with broken LPs, posters of “Shaft” and “Superfly,” and chalked Kongo graphic-writing systems.
Emphasizing the relationship between art and its audience, an exhibit of traditionally themed African artwork titled “Call and Response: Journeys of African Art” opened this December at the Yale University Art Gallery. The layout and presentation of the show appear haphazard and contradictory to the show’s theme of clarity of communication; however, dedicating enough time to the exhibit gives the visitor a good impression of the role of call and response in African art.
According to a text panel at the entrance to the exhibit, its goal is to “explore the call and response dynamic as objects and ideas move between African groups as well as between African and non-African people.” Throughout the displays, there is much emphasis on the concept that African art is not static, but that the theme of call and response has developed through different mediums and contexts.
The bulk of pieces include firmas, or symbols made into cosmograms, pictograms and ideograms in two and three dimensions. These symbols were drawn on the ground with chalk, printed on textiles, engraved in masks and sculpted into monuments. Although the exhibit is thought-provoking, it suffered from a disorganized display.
One of the more notable displays is a series of wooden sculptures on a mirror-lined shelf in the corner of the gallery, which history of art student Brian Stromquist ’04 describes as an example of the “constant switching of roles between the image and the viewer in traditional African art.” Because both appear in the mirror, the call and response relationship is constantly changing direction.
“Sometimes roles shift and responders become callers,” advertised the attached panel. “African objects, like African cultures, are not static.”
Although the text and vocabulary panels accompanying the exhibit prove very helpful, they are often placed very low on pedestals and in poorly-lit areas, making them inconvenient or inaccessible. Generally, the show lacks a sense of unity beyond the idea of communication that chronological or more thematic presentation would solve. Chalk firmas recreated on the walls and floors to mimic the tapestries do, however, help to bring the exhibit together for the visitor.
Unfortunately, these large, chalked tapestries on opposite walls tend to detract from an “NGBE” Society emblem, intended to be displayed as a shrine.
Perhaps the most dramatic portion of the exhibit consists of Odelay Society masquerade headpieces dated from around 1975, surrounded by contemporary movie posters and broken records. Speaking to the idea that “African art objects are not simply defined by their moment of origin,” the display does an interesting job of comparing the role of call and response in different African groups.
Other notable pieces include a crucifix from the Kingdom of Kongo and a small female statue covered in a white powder called “Kaolin.” The crucifix was originally intended to represent the “four winds” of Caribbean lore and to suggest the idea of the circle of life in African culture. The white powder on the statue helps to explain “the white” in the chalkings, as an expression of the glory passed down from forebearers.
Overall, this is a worthwhile exhibit for museum visitors who come with knowledge of African art or with lots of time to spend reading. But “Call and Response: Journeys of African Art” proves disappointing, as it lacks clarity. To enjoy the show, the visitor is pressed to sift through a disorganized exhibit, having to search for continuity and bend awkwardly to read the labels.
Call and Response: Journeys of African Art
Yale University Art Gallery
Through March 25, 2001