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Author: Holland Cotter
Title: For an opening, secrets, Africa's currency of power
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: For an opening, secrets, Africa's currency of power
Holland Cotter

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 5, pp. 5, 1993
Author Biography: Holland Carter is a correspondent for The New York Times.

For an opening, secrets, Africa's currency of power

by Holland Cotter,The New York Times, February 12, 1993

Over the last decade the Center for African Art has quietly produced a series of memorable theme shows. Its "Wild Spirits, Strong Medicine" in 1989 was a brilliant example. "Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals," which opens tomorrow at the museum's new home is SoHo, suggests that the institution is still very much on a winning streak. Organized by Mary N. Nooter, the show not only marks the center's change of name to the Museum for African Art but also gives a visually gripping account of an aspect of African culture that has important parallels with the West.

The tribal elder from Ghana who is quoted as saying "What I know, that you ought to know but do not know, makes me powerful," gets right to the heart of "Secrecy." All the show's 100 or more 19th- and 20th-century sculptures, reliefs and textiles carry hidden materials or secret information. The information relates to matters mythical, political, communal or personal, but in every case, the knowers of the secrets—a king communicating with ancestors, members of a tribal fraternity, women embedding disguised messages in their weaving or a diviner healing the sick —have the special power to reveal or withhold knowledge from others.

The association of Africa with secrecy is neither novel nor innocent. The cliché of the Dark Continent, rife with "secret societies" and inscrutable fetishes, has clouded Western views for centuries. The exhibition does not attack this perspective head on, but it does not play into its sensationalism either. The first of several concise wall texts makes clear that the purpose of "Secrecy" is not to reveal the specific secrets of the objects displayed (which would be an immensely complicated task) but to consider the ambiguous notion of secrecy itself, with its combination of discretion and self-aggrandizement and its tendency to set up social boundaries based on age, sex and social status while creating and sustaining larger communal bonds.

In line with the style developed over the last several years by Susan Vogel, the museum's director, "Secrecy" has a strong anthropological rather than formalist bent and is set up as a kind of data-rich textbook, with chapters demarcated by questions ("How does art identify owners of secret knowledge?") posted on the gallery walls. Hand-holding of this kind is always a potential problem. A little bit goes a long way, but that little bit, if well judged, can be illuminating. In "Secrecy," the curatorial touch is kept light and generally succeeds in opening the work up rather than narrowing it.

The show begins by isolating strategies commonly used in African culture to hide information. In the case of an extraordinary Cubistic painted wooden mask from Zaire, the secrets actually cover the exterior of the object. They take the form of a pattern of unremarkable-looking incisions that are meaningless to any viewers except members of a particular tribal fraternity who have learned to interpret them.

Other objects, by contrast, radiate a palpable sense of mystery but keep their secrets locked inside. An exquisite male wooden figure from Congo sits in Buddha-like repose, his chest and shoulders slightly tensed as if he were inhaling deeply. Here form and function find a perfect match, for sealed within his body is the breath of a departed ancestor.

Architectural fragments, including a carved and brightly painted dance platform, dominate the rest of the main gallery space, while the museum's lower floor holds more intimate works, including privately commissioned figures implanted with prescribed medicines and a carved coronation stool supported by a single delicately rendered female figure. The stool, which embodies the political potency of kingship, was used once for investiture, then hidden from sight, and the woman's downcast gaze looks as if it were indeed unaccustomed to exposure to light.

Material used by the initiation groups that control the passage from childhood to adulthood through the transmission of secrets are clustered toward the end of the show. The rules of initiation are strict—the figure of a hanged man warns against divulging the secrets learned—and the process can last a lifetime. An imposing Senufo image was created to initiate the dead into the afterlife. This sculpture, we are told, was intended to be swung back and forth when carried in funeral processions, a reminder that almost all of the art in "Secrecy" was mobile and was often used in performance and was never meant to be subjected to static close-up scrutiny in a Western museum.

In fact, the problem of how African art would be presented in a non-African context is something the Museum for African Art will no doubt grapple with repeatedly. The options aren't infinite, but the wall texts in this show give clear indication of the museum's awareness of how easily Western display of non-Western art can impose further layers of mystery and secrecy never intended by the makers of the objects.

Which brings one, in the end, to the ethics of secrecy itself. "Secrecy: Art That Conceals and Reveals" is, after all, in part an examination of elitism and exclusion, of institutionalized knowledge wielded for the purpose of controlling others who have different, perhaps inferior, certainly less valued kinds of information. In this aspect of the show, Western and African uses of knowledge have clear parallels. Yet while an exhibition of Western art with secrecy as its theme would be taken seriously only as a critique of Western culture, the same dynamic found in a less familiar art is a subject for critically neutral curiosity, a fact that adds yet another dimension to this beautiful and thought-provoking show.

"Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals," which opens tomorrow, will remain at the Museum for African Art, 593 Broadway, near Houston Street in SoHo, through August 15. Hours will be 11 am to 6 pm Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and 11 am to 8 pm Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Admission is $3; $1.50 for students, children and the elderly. Information: (212) 966-1313.

Copyright ©1993 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.

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