Los Angeles

“African Art”

Otis Art Institute

A nostalgia for primitivism is one simplistic and recurrent response of “civilized” man to the cultural and moral failures of his own society. Theocritus' laments for a pastoral existence, the edenic myth, Montaigne's reflections on cannibals, the nineteenth century vogue of Ossianism, Gauguin's Tahitians, Marées' images of a golden age—all demonstrate a longing for an earlier and somehow glorious time. That cliché which equates civilization with emotional enervation has as its corollary the assertion that life “ab origine” is either good, happy, or brilliantly vigorous. One incident in the long history of man's love affair with the primitive was the popularization of African art at the beginning of the twentieth cen­tury, an event sometimes considered crucial to the development of cubism, seminal to modern expressionist modes, and essential to the curious phenomen­on of the sudden appearance of a thousand African conversation pieces on walls from Tremont Avenue to the rue de l'Echaudé. If the subsequent omnipresence of African sculpture has by now cheated us of its “rara avis” aspects, we remain with an appreciation of the power of the best works themselves and the lingering ability of African culture, despite upheavals, war, and modernity, to evoke Rousseautic memories.

The current large and impressive exhibit of African art at the Otis Art Institute (culled from the Dalzell Hatfield Galleries, 49 Steps Antiques, the Segy Gallery in New York, and private collections), and of Africa-inspired fabrics by Jack Lenore Larsen presents a dramatic contrast between the results of a nostalgic dalliance with the primitive and the aboriginal art itself. The African figures, masks, “chi wara,” ritual vessels, even the utilitarian objects such as loom pulleys, gold weights, seats, and decorated utensils, all share a harsh abstracted vigor. The fabrics by Larsen, from his “African Collection,” are exotic, lush, romantic, sumptuously iridescent. As such, they are a perfect foil for the African art, which shares none of the qualities of the fabrics exhibited (unless “intensity” be somehow twisted to cover two divergent notions), but does succeed in showing up with acrid clarity against the vivid Larsen backdrops.

The exhibit contains a great variety of ancestor and secular figure sculpture, carved of wood; because of the impermanence of this basic material in African climatic conditions, one assumes that in all probability none of these wooden pieces is older than one hundred and fifty years. Since the traditions out of which these works emerge are ancient, there is a pathos in the implied artistic mortality, but there is also to be seen here the essentially functional nature of African sculpture, whether as a spiritual repository for the tribal ancestors or, in the case of the masks, as requisite equipment for tribal ritual.

The sculpture extends in style from the highly abstract, rigid, geometrically patterned, “pole” type Dogon figures, which stand with arms expressively raised, to those of the Baule, the principal tribe of the Ivory Coast, with their more naturalistic, “round,” elegantly surfaced figures. Three Baule statues seen here, two women and a man, all show calm stances. The women's hands rest on their abdomens, decorative beads on pointed breasts, pouting mouths (which the Baule use to symbolize sadness), and each has the characteristic detailed scarification. The male figure is unusually fine. With his hand to his beard, he stands with imposing solidity; the careful treatment of decorative cicatrices, headdress, the gently rounded forms and polished surfaces, reflect a sophisticated sculptural sense.

Intriguing in its variety, is the series of chi wara shown in the exhibit; these antelope forms, head dresses of the Bambara tribe of the Western Sudan, suggest the imaginative variety possible within a given traditional form. What characterizes them as a group, however, and in contrast to the frontal solidity of the figure sculpture, is their elegant and dramatic linearism. This quality, of course, is not unrelated to the surface design elements of the figures.

Of the masks shown, one may discover stylistic contrasts between the sophisticated placidity of the Baule, with their Modigliani-esque elongations, and the abstract, geometric shapes of the Senufo. Among the Senufo works are several large hood masks utilizing animal and mechanical features; in these masks the tendency toward abstraction is exploited to suggest brutal power. A calculated asymmetry lends vitality to these works, a vitality shared by the carved ritual vessels of the Senufo. These are large, bold containers, borne by figures bent over in decorative caricature of the carrying position and enhanced by geometrically assertive design.

In this attractive exhibit of African art, perhaps the weakest contributions are the neo-impressionist paintings, which have neither the grace nor the authority of the numerous fine pieces of sculpture.

Nancy Marmer