Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, February 17, 2006

Something missing from the Frist’s African art show

To cut to the chase–Christianity and Islam. OK, let’s take a couple of steps back. The Frist Center’s current big show is a selection of African art primarily from the collection of the Seattle Art Museum. It’s a well-done show, chock-full of interesting objects. The primary organization is a sequence of sections that focus on the emblematic art forms of different cultural groups: Asante kente clothe and gold jewelry, Maasai beadwork, Dan masks, and so on. A critical part of the curatorial stance is that these are not archeological remains, but forms currently in use. For example, one of the kente is a pattern (or maybe it’s the cloth) worn by Kwame Nkrumah when he was released from prison by the Brits. Each of these sections has narration from a person from that cultural group, who put the works in cultural context. In almost every case, they refer to how these art objects fit into practices that continue into the present, maybe something they remember as a kid (and a lot of the speakers are relatively young). To stress the quality of the art as living practice, the show ends with work by contemporary Africans.

I reviewed the show in the Scene a few weeks ago: http://www.nashvillescene.com/Stories/Arts/Art/2006/02/02/Africa_as_We_ve_Never_Seen_It/index.shtml but there’s this gap that has been bugging me. The idea is that these artworks represent a contemporary African culture, not some pristine and lost cultural state. The exhibit jumbles artworks dated (generally imprecisely) as 19th or 20th century, indicating that you don’t need to segregate older and newer works. I have no trouble going along with that. I like the idea. And they didn’t shy away from works that reflect the contact with the West, which of course has been going on a long time.

But based on what I know about African society, I was surprised to see no reference (that I remember) to Christianity or Islam. As I understand it, a majority of sub-Saharan African identify themselves as Christians. Western Christians frequently hear about the rising influence of their African branches, whether it is in the controversies around homosexuality in the Anglican church or the selection of a new Pope. Several of Carlton Wilkinson’s photos from his travels to Africa show Christianity as part of the life of everyday, contemporary Africans (there were several in his show at the Parthenon, and you can see them over at In the Gallery). The displays in the Frist show don’t stress religious practice and traditional cosmologies, although that does come up from time to time. More of the works had to do with social, “folk” practices like European town festivals that have their roots in non-Christian ideas about the world of spirits.

I can believe that African Christianity is very syncretic, and that folk practices survive alongside the new religion, but I have trouble imagining that Christian images aren’t starting to creep into some of these forms, or that Christianity isn’t adapting some of the forms for worship and evangelism. And then you wonder if the curators have avoided these crossovers in the interests of an idea of authenticity, or a judgment of quality, that second-guesses the Africans themselves.

The same could be said of visual references to Islam, similarly lacking, although my understanding is that Islam is less pervasive than Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa, the focus of this show. And I would expect that Islam is less likely to adapt older cultural forms, but maybe I’m wrong about that.

The one place where I saw the clear presence of Christianity was in video of Ghanaian funerals that involve wood coffins built to look like objects of importance to the deceased. At one point women are dancing around the coffin, and if you look close you see they are all wearing T-shirts with an image of Jesus on them.

I don’t have an answer to whether this show fails to show us this latest step in what African art looks like. Maybe somebody has some insight on it they want to put in a comment. Otherwise, it’s just something I’m going to keep an eye out for. The best answer would be to get to Africa myself. Not sure if that will happen.

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