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Sunday, November 24, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Out Of Africa -- A World-Class Collection Is At Last Released From `Hibernation'

African art comes off the wall to surround you in the new downtown Seattle Art Museum.

"This art is confrontational," says Pamela McClusky, SAM's curator of African art. "It's not decorative stuff. It's meant to get in your face, and do something to you."

We've been waiting a long time for that. It has been just over a decade since SAM acquired Katherine White's world-class collection of African art, and during that time we've had scarcely more than tantalizing peeks at it.

White lived with her art. By the time of her death in 1980, at age 51, she had spent 20 years of avid acquisition, putting together one of the finest private collections of African art in the world - ceremonial masks, regalia, brilliant textiles, and jewelry representing four centuries and 67 separate cultures in African civilization.

"Most of these pieces have been waiting far too long to get out on view," McClusky agrees.

When the new museum opens Dec. 5, it will have a permanent space of its own, at last. Three galleries on SAM's third floor will be devoted to African art, laid out as open, curving areas, as organic as the pace of African life.

"We planned the installation as a series of extravagant gestures that suggest a new way to look at the art," McClusky said.

The first gallery is devoted to personal objects; things used at home - jewelry, textiles and household objects. Of course, these weren't ordinary households; some of the pieces were owned by Cameroonian royalty.

In the central gallery, masks cluster like a summit conference, bringing together the powers of Yoruba and Akan, Cameroon and Asante. Initiates had to eat food from the tip of the nose of the Pende mask from Zaire. The two white faces, back to back, of a Fang mask from Gabon, and a four-faced Fang mask, assaulted their original audiences with notions of the next life.

You won't see these masks through a green film of glass, as fusty old-time museums used to present them. At SAM, you will stand face to face with them, grouped on a platform that thrusts out like a curving stage into the center of the gallery. These masks were used in public performances. Spotlighted in alcoves along the wall are masks and regalia used for more private rituals - pieces McClusky describes as "volatile, and often dangerous."

She notes that the sense of power that surrounds them is "like the captive energy of a being that comes to Earth for only 24 hours each year, and has so much to say and do in that time."

Noted African art expert Robert Farris Thompson was initiated in a towering black and raffia costume that stands at one end of the gallery. It is frightening enough standing silent. In use, the figure would rush in and bear down on someone, who then was meant to confess grudges and other secrets.

Two continuous video loops will show the costumes as they were meant to be seen - in dance and ritual in the tribes where they originated. This is the heart of African ritual art; it was made to be seen in motion.

The third gallery holds sacred art - ancestor and guardian figures. Dark figures made for community shrines are set in recessed white niches whose sides block out the swirl of surrounding life and allow them to be seen as objects of quiet contemplation. In the center of the gallery, a round enclosure that suggests an altar holds figures that once were housed and attended in private family shrines.

The power of the masks and figures in these galleries is palpable.

"When the objects first came out of the storage into the galleries, it was a little like a bear coming out of hibernation," said Jacci Thompson-Dodd, who heads SAM's public relations office. "You could feel the objects sort of stretch out after spending so long in suspended animation. It's like they've come out of a long sleep. I can feel the energy coming from them. They're happy here. You can feel it."

A lot of time and thought has gone into the labels. They do more than name the time and tribe where the pieces originated; they answer questions such as, "why are the horns on that antelope mask facing forward when no antelope has horns like that?"

"Some of this art looks fairly horrific," McClusky says. But sometimes appearances deceive. She points to a nail fetish from the Congo - a male figure with so many nails driven into his body he resembles a human hedgehog. "Imagine a culture where people hammer out their differences without attorneys," she says.

Rich and full as these galleries are, they still can display only a small fraction of SAM's African collection. McClusky says 300 pieces will be out on view, from a collection that numbers around 2,500.

Conservation is critical, since much African art consists of fragile, organic materials. But SAM's careful storage of this art may preserve more than its physical appearance.

In major African cities, masquerades that once were a vital part of life are being replaced by TV.

`DISCOVER AFRICA'

Seattle will celebrate SAM's Katherine White Collection in a monthlong, citywide "Discover Africa!" program Jan. 14 through Feb. 15.

During that program:

-- The Children's Museum will host an exhibit and workshops focusing on African art.

-- The Seattle Public Library will host weekly African presentations, along with a puppet show and a resource guide to African material.

-- An African storyteller will present programs at the Seattle Aquarium.

-- The Seattle Sheraton Hotel plans an African food festival and an exhibition of drawings.

-- The Woodland Park Zoo will offer storytelling and an education program on how wildlife is depicted in art.

-- The Northwest Folklife Festival will present the South African "mbanga" group Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens.

-- The Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation will offer demonstrations, workshops and classes about Africa at community centers throughout the city.

-- Seattle Central Community College will offer classes in African culture, adornment, cooking and literature.

-- The Seattle Art Museum will present a broad program of African films and lectures.

-- Adventure Associates will present a slide lecture on Travel in Africa.

-- CARE will present a slide show on how children live in Africa.

-- Group Health Cooperative will bring groups of homeless children and those with special needs to SAM and to the Children's Museum.

Schedules for all of these events will be announced closer to the time the festival begins.

The celebration is the first collaborative effort of the Partnership for Community Programming, which represents a broad range of Seattle institutions that aim to work together to create compatible programming for events such as this one.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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