May 14, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 16

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    Exploring the fantastic and sublime in 600 years of African art

    By Shula Neuman
    News Office

    African art spanning 600 years--from Ethiopian Christian triptychs of the 15th century to mid 20th-century Nigerian masks--will be on display in "A Sense of Wonder: African Art from the Faletti Family Collection," opening today, May 14, at the Smart Museum of Art. The collection features more than 80 objects--including wood sculptures, masks, beaded objects, textiles and works in ivory and bronze, as well as Christian-influenced crucifixes and painted icons--from the Sub-Saharan cultures of Africa, particularly Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and Ethiopia.

    The exhibit is curated by art historian Mary Nooter Roberts, former senior curator of the Museum for African Art, and anthropologist Allen Roberts (Ph.D.'80), professor and director of the African Studies Program at the University of Iowa. Through the exhibition and accompanying catalog, the curators seek to convey the African sensibility of objects as actively able to produce wonder through their own energy and to provoke an attachment beyond materialism, concepts that are foreign to most Westerners.

    The purpose of the objects on display is to simultaneously, within either a religious or secular realm, evoke an emotional response and serve a specific function, said Richard Born, Curator at the Smart Museum.

    "Our concept of art is of something that is frequently only ornamental or self-referential," Born said. "All of these objects had a purpose, when made, and they conferred some of their meaning to their their original users through artistic means."

    The exhibit is organized around two main themes: the fantastic and the sublime. In some instances, the power of the object creates a sense of the fantastic, or a feeling of nearness to the natural and supernatural worlds. One example of the fantastic is a 19th-century Nigerian headcrest that depicts otherworldly beings from an underwater realm, a realm that is filled with the potential for wealth and well-being. Such a headcrest is to be worn horizontally so that the symmetrical nature of the mask resembles the reflection on the surface of water itself.

    Other objects evoke a sense of the sublime, or experiences that are transcendent and intense in their ability to produce anxiety, yet always lead to astonishment and awe and, ultimately, relief. One figure that represents the sublime is a late 19th-century nkisi power bundle of the Kongo peoples. The object has the shape of a human being with a highly polished face and compact body. The figure, which holds a round, hollow object originally filled with materials that activated its power, is fashioned to respond to particular problems and circumstances.

    Born said the exhibit also illustrates the way traditional arts adapt to new materials and new technologies. For example, a 20th-century bowl with intricately designed figures in bas-relief appears to be reminiscent of similar offering or divination bowls in traditional African life, yet a closer inspection reveals the surprising image of a figure on a motorcycle. "But the adaptability of traditional art forms to modern themes and textures doesn't detract from the value these objects hold for their users," Born said. "It merely underscores the transcendent nature of the concepts the pieces embody." "A Sense of Wonder" will be on display through June 28. Related events include the lecture "If You're Talking to the Gods, What Language Do You Speak? The Dialect/ic of Art in Africa and the Diaspora," presented by Suzanne Blier, professor of fine arts and Afro-American studies at Harvard, at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, May 21, in the Cochrane-Woods Art Center. In addition, Smart Museum's Family Day, from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 6, will feature mask-making and a performance by Muntu Dance Theatre. For more information, call 702-0176 or see http://csmaclab-www.uchicago.edu/SmartMuseum.