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Wondrous African Art

Your grandmother’s cameo, a baby tooth, a hunk of

quartz. "The objects we store away . . . in our personal museum

of beloved things, are all of them talismans for our dreams,"

observes French philosopher and poet Gaston Bachelard. The mystery

in things, and the sense of wonder they can evoke, is really no mystery

at all.

"A Sense of Wonder: African Art from the Faletti Family Collection,"

currently on view at the Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick, featuring

more than 80 art objects from Ethiopia and sub-Saharan regions of

west, central, and east Africa, is a show about things. Things from

a vast and rich part of the globe Westerners know all too little about.

Africa is the world’s second largest continent, encompassing four

distinct climactic zones and 53 modern nations, with more than 800

different languages spoken. Here African cities and kingdoms founded

centuries ago endure. Political and religious institutions, both ancient

and modern, exert differing degrees of power and influence within

the context of post-colonial national governments.

Assembled by Chicago lawyer Richard Faletti over a period of 20 years,

and featuring 80 works dating from the 15th to the early 20th century,

the Faletti collection offers an overview of the variety of style

and sensibility in African art. The exhibit and catalog focus special

attention on certain themes derived from African concepts.

The curators choose Bachelard’s poetic observations to introduce

their catalog essays. Among the concepts the curators want to share

is the idea that an active interaction between people and objects,

and the belief that objects, through their own inherent energies,

may be efficacious. Whereas late 20th-century Westerners have become

increasingly alienated from the potential vitality of things, largely

through the advent of mass production, the curators observe that "many

Africans foster and preserve poetic intimacy with objects."

Highlights of the exhibit of intricate hand-made art include carved

head crests of the Bamana, a farming people; ivory artifacts, delicately

carved with human and animal figures, from Nigeria; and a Yoruba shrine

statue of a sitting dog, a favorite companion of the Yoruba gods.

An array of Ijo and Igbo figures, with whimsical carving and dynamic

combinations and shape and volume, offer vivid evidence of the formal

inventiveness and abstraction from nature that exerted a cataclysmic

influence on Western artists — notably the Parisians Picasso and

Braque — early in the 20th century.

Curated by Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts, the exhibition

originated almost two years ago at the Phoenix art museum and has

been on an extended tour to cities that include Chicago, Champaign,

Illinois, and Boise, Idaho. Mary Nooter Roberts is now chief curator

of UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History, and Allen Roberts is

director of the UCLA Center for World Arts and Culture. A fully illustrated,

scholarly catalog written by the curators, opens with Bachelard’s

comfortably European observation, and, in a series of related essays,

addresses many of the show’s difficult cultural and esthetic issues

— including why a man from Chicago, Faletti, would come to possess

so many beautiful and powerful things made by (and in most cases for)

Africans.

One positive aspect of the debate is the way these curators strive

to introduce positive ways of looking at and thinking about these

objects. Their guidelines can be helpful at looking at all types of

art objects, both familiar and unfamiliar. These would include strange

art objects from Africa as well as those of Charles Saatchi’s shocking

"Sensation" collection, previously shown in London and just

opened, against Mayor Guiliani’s wishes, at the Brooklyn Museum of

Art.

The curators’ first category, "Ways of Looking," points out

what can be seen — the materials, technique, and formal or design

elements. A second category, "A Sense of Wonder," explores

the spiritual meaning and esthetic power of the objects. The third,

"Context," discusses the object’s role within its society

of origin, including its function and the circumstances of its creation.

"A Sense of Wonder" further pushes beyond the traditional

European definition of African art as an exemplar of beauty and power

and assesses it in terms of indigenous African virtues that are probably

unknown to most visitors to the show. These include ajabu,

a Swahili word for "surprising, astonishing, marvelous;" kabande,

a Mende expression for "an appreciation of mystery and wonder;"

and ara, a Yoruba adjective that means "startling, perhaps

uncanny, creativity."

The curators also encourage consideration of the artworks in terms

of concepts of the "fantastic" and the "sublime" —

adapting "sublime," for cross-cultural purposes, to its meaning

as figuratively uplifting, noble, and exalted. Clustered in the category

of the sublime are found the Ethiopian Christian artifacts, bronze

crosses from the 12th century, and other devotional objects made from

wood, ivory, parchment, and bronze. Some Ethopian church murals are

considered so powerful they may be kept hidden from casual viewing

behind screens.

While objects of the sublime convey balance, harmony, symmetry, and

subtlety, works of the fantastic erupt with energy and challenge standard

esthetic notions. By contrast, the extroverted esthetic of the fantastic

is expressed by polychrome spirit masks and altars that unexpectedly

juxtapose animal and human forms.

Richard Faletti began collecting the art of Africa in the late 1970s

after a business trip to Nigeria where he visited the Jos Museum.

What he saw there — unique art forms that were the culmination

of thousands of years of culture and history — captivated him.

The urge to be surrounded by these objects, and to acquire those that

moved him most profoundly, was irresistible and so began his collection.

"I feel a deep sense of responsibility in serving as guardian

of these objects and in bringing them to as wide an audience as possible,"

says Faletti. This barrage of magical objects have already traveled

the breadth of America. Their potential for fellowship and beneficence

resides with each individual visitor.

A Sense of Wonder: African Art from the Faletti Family Collection,

Zimmerli Art Museum, George and Hamilton streets, New Brunswick,

732-932-7237. Show continues to November 24. Museum hours are Tuesday

through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to

5 p.m.

African Art Symposium: African Societies and Sensibilities,

a daylong symposium in conjunction with the current exhibition. Talks

by curators Mary Nooter Roberts, chief curator of UCLA’s Fowler Museum

of Cultural History; and Allen Roberts, director of the UCLA Center

for World Arts and Culture. Other scholars speak on topics that include

African American Art, Human Rights in Contemporary Africa, Masculine

Youth Culture in Nigeria, and the Spiritual Significance of Yoruba

Beading. Preregister. Saturday, October 9, 10 a.m.


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