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THROUGH THE EYES OF OUR ANCESTORS:
AFRICAN ART FROM THE JAMES and MARJORIE L. WILSON COLLECTION
This exhibition places the art of various African cultures nearer to its original context, where sculpture is only part of a larger ensemble that creates a complete character, an ancestor, or a spiritual entity. Without all its components, that entity could not exist.
African art was traditionally made within a strict and complex social context. Workshops and carvers were often secluded as they rendered spiritually resonant objects and continued traditions, often with surprising changes in form or detail to keep up with the demands of changing societies. Within each culture, secret societies and/or royal courts decided when, where, and how an object was made. Currently in African cultures, many people contribute to the creation of a masquerade ensemble, whether in currency or in kind. A ceremonial mask or figure is commissioned from a carver, and the mask consecrated with input from a fetisheur who empowers it and costume makers who help create its identity. Ultimately, over its lifetime a mask or an ensemble undergoes change, whether through erosion, repair, or refurbishment. Additions such as textiles, metal, medicine amulets, and pigments affect both the wood and the costume. And that, of course, reveals the history of the object to people within the society and to Western collectors as well (see Surfaces, edited by Donna Page, Leonard Kahan and Pascal Imperato).
In the West, our recognition of different components within African art has evolved over time. Contemporary art in the West has moved beyond the abstract stage and is now in a polymorphic phase, which opens us to other aspects of African artistic production. Moving through Cubism to Abstraction, and through Minimalism to Conceptualism requires acceptance of change in our own views. These art trends changed as societal values, technology, trade, and contacts changed and developed. What was recently accepted as exciting rather quickly becomes doctrinaire and antiquated as new techniques, images, and values take their place.
We’re not suggesting that all these fast changes took place in African cultures, altering their art drastically from one generation to the next, though change occurred there too. Rather, we’re suggesting that we are predisposed to see and accept our own current perceptions within African art, and can pull from its numerous styles and expressions those that appeal to us most, given our current way of seeing and thinking. Neither is African art constant. There are many types of expression, representing a variety of institutions, traditions, and deities. We often pick that which we think represents “African art” according to the state of our own current knowledge. Then, where do we start?
Before and during the 19th century, with only a few exceptions, Europeans seeing through the lens of colonialism, racism, and hierarchical comparisons of cultures, selected artifacts that best expressed their vision of the so-called ‘primitive man.’ Alternatively, they admired objects such as carved ivories, which fit their definition of art. That limited vision expanded as more attention was given to examining the plastic values of African sculpture and knowing local histories of the objects. Eventually, Cubism was one of the main yardsticks by which one could see and appreciate some of the intent, technique, and profound value systems in African art. The reduction of representational form to its basics was appealing to European artists and eventually to collectors as well.
In past gallery exhibitions and publications, we have personally examined other aspects of African art, such as minimalism---the ability to reduce form to its most essential, with an efficiency and purity of form and line comparable to that found in contemporary Western art. In other publications, we investigated African art from the standpoint of gestures, color, surfaces, and metamorphosis---the combining of human and animal images on artifacts. As we continued investigating art from the African continent, we found more and more parallels in American art history. As one would find in any art of long standing, that of both continents served the needs of one generation after another, helping each society carry and preserve the messages, history, and values of their peoples and institutions.
Today in the West, there has been a tendency to collect African art by focusing on such qualities as rarity, creativity, cubistic formal structure, perfection of form and a well-developed patina that shows societal usage and thus reverence for the object. The age of any piece, though not necessarily a criterion for good art, does allow us to know that the sculpture was created generations ago, with fewer Western influences or commercialism. Such an object has an underlying rarity, as obviously fewer such objects can now be found.
Once a work of African art has been removed from its original context, it is given a different significance, reflecting the aesthetics of the collector or the exhibiting institution, and removing it from the original intent of the culture that made and used it. The object may be moved from one display to another, from a private collection to a museum exhibition, each with its own way of interpreting African art. For instance, in a recent QCC exhibition of the Marshall and Caroline Mount collection of Cameroon objects, we accepted the hypothesis that all categories of sculpture and craft, in all materials and modes of usage should be considered African art.
Yes, Jim and Marge Wilson could have collected African art from the aesthetic viewpoint of pure form, of internal sculptural relationships and beauty of line, volume, and proportion. Perhaps in the beginning of their collecting, in the 1970’s, they did, but Jim, who had an interior design business, ‘House of Ebony,’ saw more in African art than pure form. In his own background, he has both Igbo and Asante ancestors. He understood that the excitement of ceremony, dance, and celebration demanded not only sculpture but a kaleidoscope of forms, colors, patina, and materials. His ultimate strength as a collector lay in his appreciation of the entire artifact, with its history intact. He saw the relationship among the many objects used within the same ceremony or event, in support of one another. While he recognized sculpture in its pure state --- line, shape, volume, plane, and proportion --- he was also drawn to the total presentation. These include the accoutrements, colors, textures, patinas and various raw materials that create the entity conceived by the original society and its masqueraders. These extraneous materials have often been discarded or omitted by dealers, collectors and museums that preferred the art to be seen in its ‘pure’ state. Jim Wilson was less interested in that ‘pure’ state, and more in the traditions reflected by the total ensemble, including the dance, its age, the refurbishments, additions and changes. This entire cultural artifact is a preserver of tradition, a transmitter of the aesthetics and values of its people.
In choosing these selections from Jim’s collection, we hope to have encapsulated the very essence of his vision. Jim Wilson has brought to the collecting of African art a larger statement, which he perceives as the true aesthetic. This approach integrates aspects of time, color, materials, music, and motion. Along with an object’s fine, and sometimes profound, sculptural values, he has collected the entire costume, which requires only animation to revive its original appearance. He wants to feel the spit on the piece, to hear the secrets whispered into the wood.
We hope this exhibition conveys that spirit; that it expresses a bit more than one expects to see in a show of African art. We hope it will communicate the excitement of the full tradition reflected through the variety of material, textiles, colors and forms; that it will convey the sounds of the music, the motion of the dance, and the feeling of the festival or court. He wants us to see the whole, and understand that sculptural form is just a part of something much larger.
It was work and fun putting this exhibition together. We explored new territory. It had many surprises and turned us away from conventional thinking, more toward Jim Wilson’s vision. “Through the Eyes of Our Ancestors” has opened our eyes a bit more, onto the complexities of African art and what makes it so captivating. Our exploration of its meanings and aesthetics has been and still remains an ongoing process.
Leonard Kahan and Donna Page