Treasures from the far-off shores of the Guinea Coast and other parts of Africa have recently washed up at the Yale University Art Gallery.
From the animalistic Kpakologi male mask to the elegant female figure perched on a Senufo staff, the African exhibit at the newly renovated gallery overflows with some 135 objects that capture the movement and vitality of multiple African cultures. The gallery owes most of its pieces to the late Charles B. Benenson, whose generous donation tripled the permanent collection, which now contains roughly 1,200 objects, Museum Assistant Amanda Maples said.
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“Nothing is exotic here,” African art historian Robert Farris Thompson said. “The rhythms are as familiar as the percussive poetry of Papoose, 50 Cent or other rap stars of 2007. For all these resonances and more, the Africa wing of the Yale University Art Gallery now smokes all other galleries.”
Organizing the gallery by geographic region, curator Frederick John Lamp left the African space physically undivided and free so that viewers are able to wander at will toward whatever catches their eye. He said he wanted to reflect the African idea of space by abandoning the Western practice of using traditional geometric stiffness and ninety-degree angles in favor of more oblique and curved lines.
“He also rejected the use of glass cases typical of museums because he wanted viewers to feel closer to the objects and not create artificial borders,” Maples said. “I think the space is amazing … with the spatial theme, you can learn about Africa and how the cultures there think as well.”
Lamp also chose to divide the collection into two conceptual categories based on the classification of art as spiritually cool or hot. Cool is represented by calm shades of blue, running waters and tranquility, he said. In contrast, “hot” art features violent, aggressive forms.
Another noteworthy detail in the design of the exhibit is the inclusion of conceptual photographs that accompany about a third of the objects. These, along with the captions, put each piece in the context of its creation. For example, an elaborate Ejagham skin-covered headdress is accompanied by a photo of a villager wearing the headdress in the middle of an ecstatic dance. This headdress — a hybrid piece of “hot” and “cool” with a wildly painted face and flowing turquoise serpentine body — is one of the more non-traditional pieces in the exhibit, as it was made in the 1980s.
“That is the big thing with African art,” Maples said. “The artists take traditional ideas and they blend it with modern and Western ideas … they are always creating, always making something new.”
The exhibit has gathered much attention and acclaim from African art connoisseurs since the gallery’s opening on Dec. 19 and was featured in a recent New York Times review. Thompson, a Yale history of art professor, said Holland Cotter, a Times art critic, chose to focus a review on the collection because of its intrinsic power and insight.
“Lamp did an admirable job in contextualizing and nuancing treasures flowing in from an historic bequest,” Thompson said. “That legacy makes us a world front-runner in African visual lore. Each piece is a cultural exclamation point, taking on body and spirit, through respect shown to African traditional rituals.”
A particular highlight of the exhibit is a series of life-size photographs of modern day African villagers. Broken up into towering panels and arranged in a circle surrounding the Baga D’mba ritual mask, the photographs transport the viewer into a scene of primal energy and vigor in which village women and men dance in the midst of a ceremony. The arrangement of these photographs — like a circular “chapel” — invites the viewer to join the fray.
This reflects one of the unique aspects of African art — the active participation of the viewer in enjoying the art. Each piece relies on sound, movement and touch to complete the experience because they are meant to be used in action. In the exhibit, objects like masks and headdresses project at eye level from the wall, angled in all dimensions. This creates a negative space suggestive of where the bodies wearing those objects would stand, giving the impression of an invisible foreigner breathing and sweating and waiting to spring to life.
“It’s exciting to be here because African art is very performative art,” Maples said. “This exhibit is the closest you can get to anthropology in an art museum.”