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Author: Adam Gopnik
Title: Out of Africa
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Out of Africa
Adam Gopnik

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 5, pp. 4, 1993
Author Biography: Adam Gopnik writes for The New Yorker magazine.

Out of Africa

by Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, March 22, 1993

By far the loveliest exhibition in New York right now is on view at the newly relocated Museum of African Art, under the unlovely title "Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals." Loveliness is not a quality most of us associate with African objects, but the design of the new museum, and of this purposefully exemplary show, reaches toward it—in part through the necessities of art-world politics, and succeeds.

The Museum for African Art first opened in 1984, as the Center for African Art, at Sixty-eighth and Madison, under the direction of the art historian Susan Vogel, who had been one of the organizers of the Metropolitan's Rockefeller Wing. It came into being at the time of the last great hoo-ha about African objects, occasioned both by the opening of the Rockefeller Wing and by the MOMA "Primitivism" exhibition. Intended to ride in the wake of both events, it ended up being a little swamped by them instead. The art world had said all that it had to say about the subject, and for most of the last decade the museum existed discreetly, not to say forlornly, up on the Upper East Side; its shows, though often full of terrific stuff, had a slightly placid, fifties feeling, recalling the time when every Park Avenue psychoanalyst had a small Tsogo mask in his office to go along with the Ben Shahn prints.

Last year, the museum's directors decided to move downtown, and they found a space on lower Broadway, just north of the downtown Guggenheim. Maya Lin, of Vietnam Veteran's Memorial fame, was brought in to do the renovation; a young scholar named Mary H. Nooter was asked to organize the first show, and the designer Maureen Healy to install it. Their solution for the new space, on the ground and basement floors of an old building at 593 Broadway, is not, strictly speaking, architectural at all. It's like set design-it depends on dramatic lighting and, above all, on color. Lin has designed a staircase at each end of the space to connect the two floors; the curving stairway at the near end is painted a vibrant sunshine yellow, the other an evening violet. The floors of the galleries has been stained a dark, rain-forest green, and a high-ceilinged room at the museum's entrance has had its walls covered with a beautiful deepindigo fabric from the Côte d'Ivoire decorated (departing from traditional practice) with an irregular pattern of white points, so that it looks like an improvised planetarium. This anti-puritanical display of color, in the place of the white walls of a modern museum or of the greenish neutral backgrounds of an anthropological one, suggests in itself a new appreciation of the objects the museum contains; moody and evocative, even rhapsodic, instead of detached and point-scoring. Even the intense spotlighting which illuminates the objects, picking out the patinaed or scarified surfaces of the masks against the dark surroundings, gives the works in the show a far less earthbound quality then you usually associate with African objects.

This is, in part, a political solution—or, at least, a de-politicizing one—to the formidable problems which confront anybody trying to put traditional (I almost wrote tribal) African art into a museum these days. Exhibition-making in New York is politicized right now, and putting on an exhibition of African art may be the most highly politicized act of all. There's a lot that you just can't say. You can't talk about the objects in formal terms, because that takes them out of their rightful place as ritual objects; on the other hand, if you talk about them as ritual objects you deprive them of their rightful place as sophisticated works of art. What Vogel and Nooter have done is, in effect, not to talk about the objects. Their theme of "Secrecy," though it has a solid scholarly basis, also casts a new and useful veil of discretion over African art-one of distanced, slightly respectful mystery, instead of reductive modernist formalism or old-style anthropological condescension. Instead of emphasizing either form or ritual, they want to emphasize form as ritual—the way the formal inventiveness of the masks and altars and fetishes is artful because it embodies a series of world views.

There are about a hundred works in the show: masks, figures, textiles, and architectural pieces—all sub-Saharan. The announced intention of the exhibition is to "show how certain works of art serve to protect and maintain secret knowledge," and the visitors' pamphlet goes on, "The exhibition explores secrecy cross-culturally within Africa as an aesthetic and political strategy, as a social and spiritual boundary marker, and as a form of property and power." The emphasis in "Secrecy," the curators say, "is not on the content of secrets, but rather on the form they take, and the boundaries they set between genders, classes, age groups and professions." Anyone who is familiar with current art jargon will recognize the vocabulary, and, for every chewy fact the catalogue provides, it includes some boilerplate. The obvious point that our knowledge of tribal cultures is limited becomes "It is only by rhetorical resort to synecdoche, the figure of speech in which the part stands in for the whole, that scraps of captured secret can be taken to represent the entire culture of the Other and the multiple subjectivities that constitute it." The unintended joke is that the new critical consciousness is an even more dutiful reflection of parochial concerns than the old one was. Where we were once instructed to see nothing but plastic intensity and significant form, the new "reading" sees the African peoples exploring issues of identity and gender, subverting hierarchical notions of self, creating environmental installations, etc. Apollinaire saw Picasso; we see Eva Hesse. But the objects themselves are richer than any jargon; they're endlessly beautiful to look at, of amazingly high quality throughout, and limitlessly thought-provoking.

The show begins, in a kind of demonstration piece, with a display of Songye masks. With their heavy-lidded eyes and pursed lips, these are the African masks that look like Mick Jagger half asleep-a shelf of protruding lips, eyes treated as square bulges rather than as recesses, the whole covered with a pattern of striations that seem to suggest at once scarification and early Frank Stella. Putting the Songye masks into a "revisionist" show is a much more aggressive gesture than might at first be apparent, since it is the Songye masks that originally seemed—in their abstraction, their simplification of faces to a reductive geometric sign language—to sum up the formalist view of why African Art mattered so much. But they are also meant to be interpreted as cosmologies (the nostrils are "the openings of a furnace," the eyes "the swellings of sorcerers," and so on) and to be read like books-slowly taken in, rather than absorbed in a moment of aesthetic shock.

If art has any purpose in these media-saturated days, it is to make us look more slowly, and a kind of slowed-down observation is what this show offers. What is "secret" about some of the objects is occasionally unclear. A Lulua figure, for instance, though it turns out to have little reservoirs into which special ingredients could be poured, isn't really secret at all: it looks like a warrior, and it is a warrior. Other objects, though, are beautifully uncommunicative, deliberately obscure. A fourlegged, featureless, balloonlike sculpture of an animal-at once adorable and sinister-from the Bamana people of Mali turns out to derive from a tribal fraternity and also, shockingly, to be a sacrificial altar, covered with what the label delicately calls "dried organic matter". The mysteriousness of the piece-its featurelessness-is apparently part of a self-consciously romantic aesthetic held by the Komo elders, for whom the key aesthetic term is dibi, which means "obscurity". The piece is kind of a sublime stuffed animal-Barney with blood lust.

Other pieces in the show are anthropological marvels. There is, for instance, a memory board from the Luba people, in Zaire-a pegboard in the form of a tortoise, on which multicolored pieces can be placed to encode generalogical knowledge. Still others are richly emotional. A simple Vuvi mask from Gabon, for instance, is not particularly inventive as sculpture-it's just a white shield with features laid on it-but it becomes a representation of anxiety as powerful as a Hellenistic bust. Its features are reduced to two simple shapes-wedges and bean-shaped ovals. Its open, expectant mouth and eyes are made from the bean shape, the high classical nose from the wedge, while a second wedge serves as both eyebrows and expression lines-a visor of doubt superintending a universal face.

The masterpieces of the show are two nkisi from Zaire. One, a male figure, has mirrors for eyes, and its arm is raised in intimidation; hundreds of nails have been driven into the body, at every imaginable angle, until they form a hide-a coat-of iron spikes. The other figure, a two-headed dog, snarls at both ends: cave canem. I have lived my entire life in fear of nkisi like this. (There used to be one at a museum I frequented as a child, set at the end of a long, long corridor; I tip-toed past it with my eyes shut.) Now, having read the catalogue, I understand that the nkisi are, in fact, meant to be just as scary as they look. And yet they have their benevolent aspect, too. The nails are driven into them in order to activate medicines secreted inside hidden cavities in the figure, and the mirrors are meant to deflect evil. There are imaginary creatures that are scary because they seem to annihilate the possibility of a moral universe (Jason in the "Friday the Thirteenth" movies, for instance), and then there are imaginary creatures (the Wicked Witch of the West, Freddy Kreuger) that are scary because they seem to define so well the nature of fear-and in defining it they circumscribe it, make it knowable and coherent and controllable.

The show ends with a series of objects from the Dogon people of Mali—"classical" African objects—which have known to Westerners longer, perhaps, than any other kind of African art. There is a moralizing purpose here: what we understand about Dogon art—its purposes, its rituals—has changed a lot over the century, so that we are now less certain about its meaning than we were fifty years ago. "Can we ever really understand another culture's secrets?" the wall label asks, a little disingenuously. That the more you know about something the less certainly you "understand" it, though, is not a fact about the incomensurability of cultures; its a fact about understanding. Think of any common object in our own culture-the telephone, for instance. What the telephone does is, at first, easy enough to describe. But its uses-its roles as a medium for courtship, as a bearer of erotic secrets, as a centerpiece of business rituals-are endlessly complicated, and expand and alter all the time. The trouble with the old museum wall labels wasn't that they told you more than anyone really knew about Dogon culture but that they tried to tell you more than the Dogon knew themselves.

Telephones, of course—with the possible exception of that strange phone from the sixties which stood up straight and bent its head, like a Brancusi seal—do not declare their complexities when you look at them. There are several objects in the "Secrecy" show that are simply exotic telephones; their unfamiliarity makes us read more into them than there is. But some things do manage to look mysterious even after all their ostensible secrets are known, and when they do we call them art. Mary Nooter struggles to make the right point, but she does make it: the secrets in African art are mostly open, and pretty much open-ended. She writes, "The assignment of fixed meanings and interpretations is only tangential to the real essence and purpose of the secret which resides in its own signification." If there's any point in talking about "art" as a category that crosses cultures—and anyone who works in a museum ought to think there is, or get into some other line of work—it is to describe the secrets that every culture has and that somehow manage to keep themselves.

It's probably unfair to use art as rich and sophisticated and "achieved" as this to beat contemporary art over the head with. But you can't help thinking about the way that the African art, which is tied to the most profound cultural needs, is so much less schematic and diagrammatic than anything in the Whitney Biennial, which has reached a nadir of sanctimonious, self-congratulatory sloganeering. The Biennial, as has been widely advertised, is devoted this year to a narrow band of "political" art. Inevitably, much of it takes the form of installations and projects: oblique assemblages of objects—branding irons, replicas of Egyptian art, images borrowed from advertising—whose intended message can generally be figured out only by consulting a label. The points that are scored are either grindingly obvious, as in the reams of pictures that explore issues of gender by showing genitalia, or else bafflingly oblique, as in Allan Sekula's deadpan photographs of ports, which turn out to be bearing a message about, among other things, Israeli-Arab relations. There is even a piece in which you can pick up a red telephone, dial a 900 number, and get a lecture (surely intended ironically, you think at first, but apparently not) on the construction of racial hierarchies. The show combines the excitement of a seminar at the New School with the charm of a reeducation camp.

This is nothing new, of course. The debate about this Biennial rests on the question of whether the politicization of art is good or bad—a question that assumes that radical politics is the only kind of politics there is. But real politics, whatever else it may be, always has about it the tang of reality. Propaganda, on the other hand, which is what the Whitney is showing this year, is, in its nature, unreal. (That is why Soviet Communist imagery blends so easily, as Komar & Melamid have demonstrated, with surrealism.) The politicization of art, as it is being practiced at the Whitney, is a sign of the sterile disengagement of art from society, rather than the opposite. One of the things that drew people to the Matisse show at MOMA this fall was that he rearticulated for us, on a heroic scale, a set of values—the crucial importance of a realm of privacy, the claims of domestic pleasure free from interference—that are in some ways political but escape the abstract categories of ideology. One of the reasons that art, as a category, endures, even long after its old social functions have been usurped by the electronic media, is that we still have an appetite for things that find their voice in the peculiarities of the self rather than in the egoism of public diction. The "Secrecy" catalogue ends with a bit of artistic advice from a Dangme official: "Keep what you know not in your head but in your kneecap." In the Whitney Biennial this year, there are too many heads and not enough kneecaps.

Reprinted by permission; ©1993 Adam Gopnik. Originally in The New Yorker.

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