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Author: Kay Larson
Title: Ghost busters
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Ghost busters
Kay Larson

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 5, pp. 4-5, 1993
Author Biography: Kay Larson is a writer for New York magazine.

Ghost busters

by Kay Larson, New York, March 8, 1993

It's a curious show that promises secrets and then announces it will not reveal them. Are we to be teased? Should we sulk? But if there are cross-purposes in "Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals," this is at least not the big news. That has to do with the arrival of a classy new exhibition space on Broadway in SoHo, just a few doors from the New Museum, the downtown Guggenheim, and the expansive new quarters of Exit Art.

In this multiplying cluster of mostly modest nonprofit art spaces, the Museum for African Art makes a nice fit. Formerly cramped into two townhouses in the no-zone of 68th Street, the Center for African Art has changed its name, headed south, and—under its new moniker—settled somewhat gleefully into its grander classification. It has shed its slightly suffocating, elbow-knocking East Side airs and now actually looks like a museum, albeit a small one. It has a shop right inside the street entrance, so you run the gantlet to the ticket desk just as you do in the nearby Guggenheim. It has handsome coloration and an elegant gallery, rather narrow but deep (designed by Maya Lin), that descends by stairs to yet more exhibiting space on a lower floor.

As this little museum has gotten its act together, it has done shows that tend to be dwarfed by their book-size catalogues. This one fits the pattern; it is a full production enlisting thirteen authors who reconsider the various roles of art in preserving secrets in tribal Africa. You may think you know all about sculptures used to house ancestors' relics, or ones that encode formulas for initiates. But the catalogue plunges much deeper into ethnographic esoterica. Gary van Wyk writes of Sotho-Tswana women whose house decorations conceal a "culture of resistance" directed at the politics of South Africa. Allen F. Roberts addresses the cosmological significance of black, white, and red (or darkness, light, and violence) in masks of the Tabwa of southeastern Zaire. The Vagla of northwestern Ghana are described by Cesare Poppi, an initiated member in their Sigma society (which prohibited him from publishing pictures). A suspicion emerges that the Museum for African Art titls heavily toward ethnology.

But wait. How do you organize an exhibition about encrypted information? Not easily, is the answer. There may be secrets here, but a label announces they will not be revealed. So we are left to contemplate each work in its formal and meaningless beauty. Since that's the way African art is usually treated, it's neither a shock nor a surprise. In spite of a slight sense of deflation and disappointment (the labels could be more informative), we are seduced, after all (as always), by the majesty of formal invention in the African imagination.

For this inaugural show, the museum has obviously done its best to find works that hold their own on their own. A spectacular crocodile head (representing enlightenment, we're told) stares into the unknown with shiny mirrored eyes like a cosmonaut's sunglasses. A Cameroon dance mask with puckered cheeks and eyes surely was made by Picasso. Slit-eyed Songye masks from Zaire have square, puckered mouths and globular foreheads, with furrowed brows that describe a cosmology to initiates; to us neophytes they are creatures off the latest UFO, slightly withered after light years in deep space.

The netherworld is always near at hand. Gabon masks are flat as plates, and marked by simple ridges—eyebrows, nose, eyes, mouth—as though a ghost had suddenly materialized, Terminator-like, midway through your wall. To weave big magic, these must be frightening objects, saturated with paranormal significance, emotional elegance, and a deliberate dosage of the ghostly. Form follows function, indeed. These objects can still lift the short hairs on your neck. The response is beyond explanation, so perhaps, after all, few are needed.

Westerners have consistently stumbled over the spirit presence in African art: is it superstition, as was first believed? is it pure form, as Picasso appropriated and legitimized it? is it accessible through the ethnographic details? or is it none (or all) of the above? This exhibition has added another thought: perhaps it's privileged information. The idea serves a subtle purpose, which is to put Western outsiders on equal ground with uninitiated Africans, taking some of the sting out of inaccessibility. But that's not a full explanation, either.

The dilemma is wonderfully described by the show's finest oddity, a four-legged lump made of cracked earth and organic materials that is, we're told, the repository of the Bamana conception of the universe. Except that it looks a little like a mastodon without a trunk, it's basically featureless and quite inscrutable. Western culture can't abide mysteries and enlists science (including ethnology) to eliminate them. Africans enshrine mysteries; this little mud creature will find it easy to resist anything in the Western arsenal. Perhaps that's why these worlds seem never to meet.

Copyright ©1993 K-III Magazine Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine.

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