Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ancestors of Modern Art

Why talk about the latest exhibition at the NOMA? " Ancestors of Congo Square: African Art in the New Orleans Museum of Art" reaches far beyond New Orleans, local history and African art.
This blog is about modern and contemporary art, and African art is the ancestor of modern and contemporary art. Looking at the sculptures, one cannot avoid thinking of Modigliani, Brancusi, Picasso, Braque and so many others. At the beginning of the century, the artists in Paris were visiting Le Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadero (called later Musée de l'Homme) whose collections have been transferred to Le Musée du Quai Branly. The artists deciphered the art and gave their full significance to the pieces, reflections of far away civilizations. The public kept treating them as curios.
Cubism was born, Surrealism followed, and collectors like John and Dominique De Menil understood the connection as testified by the permanent exhibition at "The Menil Collection".

Picasso integrated African art in his famous painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907) with two of the subjects wearing African masks.

Of course, African art keeps inspiring numerous artists including African American artists like Romare Bearden. I am not sure that Lee Bontecou would claim her inspiration came from African art, but I could not avoid thinking about these two works pictured above. One was at the NOMA, and I came across Lee Bontecou's work at the Art Institute of Chicago a few days later. African art has become part of our heritage, our artistic language.

The exhibition itself is composed of about 100 works, sculptures and artifacts from different regions mainly from West Africa.

With maps, few comments, the exhibition has an old flavor and reminds me...of the visit at "Le Musee de L'Homme" (a small version). The videos are projected on very small screens, at a time when we can watch great educational programs on giant screens at home.

The audience looking for expertise will feel frustrated by some missing links, approximate dates, or very short descriptions of the works, their origins, their history. Maybe the curator could have brought a surprise here and there, like a reference to a local piece, a local artist?

The display feels remote, African art should be displayed as alive.
Abstract is never far, and the style is very modern... or modern artists have taken deep inspiration in African art.

100 works of art, a great introduction to African art, the exhibition should not be missed.

When the sculpture transcends the individual, when art reaches its deepest meanings and transcends a society. photographs by the author

Top left: Ngbe Society Lodge Emblem, Nigeria

Top right: "Untitled", Lee Bontecou, 1960

Face Mask, Mossi Peoples, Burkina Faso

La Femme aux Yeux Bleus" Modigliani, 1918

Face Mask, Ezzamgbo lgbo Peoples, Nigeria

Fertility Figures, Assante Peoples, Ghana

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