BALTIMORE – African art goes beyond the traditional mask. At least that’s what a new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art is intended to show.
While the connection between an Egyptian alabaster vase and the stunning kaleidoscope of video images by Ethiopian artist Theo Eshetu may not be obvious, one thing is certain – African art is changing.
“Americans are new to learning about the diversity of the African continent because we haven’t learned it,” said the exhibit’s curator, Karen Milbourne. “What is represented in media is this generic African culture of people living in tribes. Those nuances of who the individual is get lost in these stereotyped styles.”
The pieces come from different countries, have different purposes and are loosely wound around the current exhibition’s theme, Light. It is the first of a three part series of exhibitions called Meditations on African Art, which explores the use of light, color and pattern in African art. Light opened in December and ends April 1.
The second exhibition, Color, features African art that may be more familiar to Americans. It has some 30 masks and focuses on the symbolism of the colors red, black and white used within the masks. This exhibition opens April 18 and ends August 19.
The last exhibition, Pattern which opens August 29 and ends January 13, 2008, explores the use of dynamic pattern within African art.
Light showcases a diverse mix of African art ranging from a pair of 19th to 20th-century brass ankle bracelets worn by a high-ranking Nigerian woman to a Yoruba bead painting from Nigerian artist Jimoh Buraimoh.
Traditional African art is functional and connected with religious ceremony or rituals. Africans do not create art for art’s sake as in Western cultures, said Gabriel S. Tenabe, director of museums at Morgan State University.
Although most of the pieces in the exhibit are traditional masks and statues, some, such as those by the Ethiopian, Theo Eshetu, and by Buraimoh, depart from the traditional style and create artwork that is conceptual. Neither piece resembles the traditional African mask from the turn of the 20th century.
Eshetu’s video installation uses images, television and mirrors to create a video montage, in which viewers stand in front of a frame and stick their head in to see a globe of images from America, Africa and Bali, emerging, moving and melding together.
Buraimoh’s piece from 1991, Three Wise Men, shows three figures “painted” with beads. The figures allude to the three wise men of the bible and the three men who negotiated with the English for Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
The Morgan State museum director, Tenabe, said traditional art is dying out and giving way to new art forms for many reasons.
For one thing, younger generations have moved away from traditional religions, Tenabe said.
“Everything traditional is connected to religion,” he said. “But Islam prohibits images and Christian missionaries took art works out of the continent. As a result a lot of young people moved away from it.”
He said that authentic African art became popular among Europeans and Americans around the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The masks, sculpture and wood carvings were used for religious rituals, ceremonies and to adorn shrines. He said the art was never meant to be sold, but some people would steal it from the shrines and sell it or foreign missionaries would bring it to Europe or the United States.
Tenabe said another reason the art is changing is that younger people are also moving to cities were the traditional artwork is not practiced. Still, Tenabe said, traditional art will not disappear overnight. He said there was resistance to change in the 20th century and resistance still exists.
“There are still pockets of Africans that create their own works because they follow their own religion and even up to now people still use masks in Nigeria,” he said.
But some artists are moving away from the traditional style and moving not only to conceptual styles, but consumer styles of art as well.
“The new people make it to make a living, but not for religion,” he said. “They are moving away from traditional style because a lot of work goes into it and they are making it for consumers. The quality is not there because people are no longer doing it for religion, but for tourism.”
He said an authentic African mask would normally take a year to make, and sell for $2,000, but now the same artist makes four or five masks in six months and sells the new masks for $50 each.
At 58, Erness Abron Hill, a lecturer at Morgan State, has been collecting authentic African art for 30 years. She said she has seen the prices of African art soar over the time she’s been collecting.
A mask she paid $35 for in 1980 would be $350 now.
She suggested there is a simpler but more tragic reason traditional art is dying out: The African AIDS epidemic is killing the artists.
“As the disease spreads it’s going to phase out the old tradition,” she said. “When Africa stabilizes, the culture will be different.”
Even within traditional art forms such as masks, the imprint of AIDS is apparent.
Milbourne said that there are masks that have the AIDS ribbon built into them.
She also said that Africans are using the arts to educate the youth about AIDS and people infected with the disease are using artworks to raise money for their care, such as women in South Africa making and selling baskets made out of telephone wire.
Although traditional African art is changing, it’s not a negative thing, Hill said.
“This will change the way people view African art for the good,” she said. “It will help people have a better view of Africans, besides the traditional.”