Taken by Surprise

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) keeps its treasures underground, like diamonds in the African earth. Its granite entry pavilion dominates a corner of the spectacular garden behind the Smithsonian Castle. But the museum itself—its spacious galleries, elegant public spaces, library, world-class photographic archives with some 300,000 prints and transparencies, conservation laboratory and busy offices—takes a bit of discovering. It extends for several levels beneath the garden. (The entry pavilion is soon to be transformed into an even more dramatic space, with objects and video installations that introduce audiences not just to the contents of the museum but to the continent of Africa.) The descent brings visitors to an environment that attempts nothing less than to honor the legacy of all of Africa in the visual arts.

You cannot understand America without understanding the traditions of the peoples who created this country. There were Africans in America before there were Pilgrims, which is one reason the Smithsonian is such an appropriate home for an African museum. In fact, NMAfA is the only museum in the nation wholly dedicated to collecting, preserving and displaying the art Africans have made down through the ages—and the art they are making still. Along with the objects you would expect to find in such a collection—painstakingly embellished masks, ceremonial implements, statues, bottles and bowls—are paintings, sculptures, tapestries and photographs from our own day, done by African artists who have carried their heritage far from the continent and who belong to an international art community. A piece of pottery centuries old, its creator anonymous, and a bowl created within the decade and signed by the artist may be only steps away from each other, one made for a village, the other for the world.

What gives so many of these objects a special appeal is their connection to daily life and human action. There are, for example, cooking pots with elaborate lids. There is an assortment of 19th-century snuff containers. There are carved wooden headrests of various heights for elevating the neck in sleep, and wooden stools of every size and degree of elaboration, fit to cradle the bottom of a child or a chief. The stools and pipes and baskets did not start out as art (just as ancient Greek vases now displayed as treasure were once employed as implements of commerce and convenience). They have that status today not simply for their inherent beauty but for the happy accident of their survival. Though isolated in display cases, the objects carry an enduring history of human attachments.

One of the great pleasures of exploring NMAfA is to observe the juxtaposition between exhibitions that feature traditional objects and those that take traditional forms down new paths. Few artists better illustrate the continuity between the traditional and the contemporary in African art than the sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp, who lives in London but whose work takes its inspiration from the ceremonies and festivals of her Nigerian homeland. Had Douglas Camp abided entirely by tradition, she would have learned to make baskets and fishing traps, and to express herself artistically by serving as priestess to a deity. But she would not have worked with springs and wheels and motors——men’s stuff—as she does in her modern and playful sculptures, several of which are exhibited in the museum. Douglas Camp’s Small Iriabo, for example—fashioned of steel, copper and wood, and finished with red paint—represents a young Kalabari Ijo girl. Because the piece is elevated on a pedestal in the middle of a gallery, you can’t help but notice it. But time your visit right, and you won’t just see it. On the hour, from 11 A.M. to 4 P.M., Small Iriabo comes to life. A motor, lodged in the sculpture and linked to an arm, sets the girl to clapping—and the sudden, raucous action sets visitors to smiling. Expecting, perhaps, to find the Africa they think they know, they discover as well an Africa that takes them by surprise.

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