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Material Evidence 

The first thing you notice is that it's an exceptionally good-looking show. African art is funny that way. A genre unto itself, African art's many forms tend to get unfairly lumped together in our mental file folders, yet exhibits can vary widely, with some resembling the spooky contents of musty sub-Saharan attics, while others offer pristine presentations of items that are striking art objects in their own right, as well as relics of vanishing tribal cultures. The Newcomb Gallery's Materials of Africa expo is an example of the latter variety.

Taken exclusively from local sources, it is stylish and sleek, demonstrating the vitality of local collections as well as the diversity of African cultures. What is also evident, if perhaps unintentionally, is the influence of African art on European modernism. Many of the School of Paris masters were affected early on by the bold, simplified lines of African design, which shared much in common with the cubism and expressionism that arose early in the 20th century.

So now when we look at the stylized form of an Asante Portrait Head from Ghana, rendered sleekly in terra cotta, it is hard not to see echoes of Modigliani in the long neck and tranced-out expression, or Matisse in the deceptively simple yet gestural lines. And in the case of a copper, brass and iron Reliquary from Gabon -- a flamboyant and powerfully defined head and torso that recalls the exaggerated gyrations of modernist painting -- one might almost infer the influence of Picasso, at least, if one were unaware that the influence actually extended from Africa to Paris, and not the other way around.

All of which is ironic, yet very interesting. As in the case of jazz, the African flair for gesture, spontaneity and percussive forms became fused with more academic European notions of craft in what amounted to a new approach to creativity. And that in turn led to new ways of seeing among artists and non-artists alike.

Be that as it may, this is a very straight-up exhibit of items from local collections arranged taxonomically as to material, hence the title, Materials of Africa. Those materials themselves include terra cotta, iron, gold, bronze, ivory, wood and various types of beads, all rendered in great simplicity or complexity depending on their point of origin. Simple or complex, most reflect the rhythmic formal expressiveness that has come to characterize what we think of as African art in general.

But what is African art? Scholars are quick to stress that in tribal Africa these were not art objects as we think of them in the West, but items that served a particular function, most often in religious or social rituals. It may sound odd today, but such was also the case in Europe at one time -- galleries showing art that exists for its own sake did not appear until sometime in the 19th century, although art had begun to exist for its own sake as early as the Renaissance. Yet, while it was true that tribal Africa had no concept of art as it is defined in Paris or New York today, what often gets lost in that argument is the notion of aesthetics. In fact, aesthetic considerations were very important in various parts of tribal Africa, even if their aesthetic sensibilities were somewhat different from our contemporary ideas about "art" today.

Unlike the secular West, the Yoruba people of Nigeria believed that true art was characterized by Ashé -- which Robert Farris Thompson, in his landmark book, Flash of Spirit, defines as "divine force incarnate." If Ashé was the flash of divine inspiration, art's other attribute was Iwa, which Thompson says is connected with both beauty and character in what the Yoruba poetically called "mystic coolness." Here "coolness" refers to a kind of self-contained nobility and grace. As Thompson puts it, "So heavily charged is this concept ... that a fine carnelian bead or a passage of exciting drumming may be praised as 'cool.'"

With that in mind, it is interesting to note the uncanny parallels between the intricate Yoruba beadwork exhibited in this show and the no-less-intricate beadwork of our own Mardi Gras Indians. It is a resemblance that surely goes beyond materials, reflecting an inexplicable yet broadly shared sense of, not only what is beauty, character or spirit, but also -- and no less profoundly -- of what is cool.

click to enlarge What is cool? This Yoruba beaded knife scabbard from Nigeria shows the tribe's belief that true art came from Ash, or a "divine force incarnate."
  • What is cool? This Yoruba beaded knife scabbard from Nigeria shows the tribe's belief that true art came from Ash, or a "divine force incarnate."
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