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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 6, 1999. All rights reserved.
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
"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)
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
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
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
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.
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
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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