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The New York Times

Philadelphia Offers a Full-Fledged Summer of African Art
By Holland Cotter

 

People talk about Africa as if it were a unitary thing, one culture, one mind, which it’s not. That’s my only problem with “Creative Africa,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and my complaint stops with the title. The project itself, a set of five small, tight, concurrent exhibitions of African material, is richly textured, and in one case sensational.

 

Add to it a fine survey of work by the Afro-Caribbean conceptualist Nari Ward at the nearby Barnes Foundation, and the foundation’s pioneering and under-known collection of “classical” African sculpture, and this city can lay claim to being in the middle of a full-fledged African art summer.  The Philadelphia Museum has installed its five shows in the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building, a former 1920s insurance headquarters down the hill from its main location. And the largest of them, the only one of traditional objects, called “Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art,” is drawn almost entirely from the holdings of yet another august local institution, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, better known as the Penn Museum.

 

The Philadelphia Museum has installed its five shows in the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building, a former 1920s insurance headquarters down the hill from its main location. And the largest of them, the only one of traditional objects, called “Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art,” is drawn almost entirely from the holdings of yet another august local institution, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, better known as the Penn Museum.

 

“Contemporary Perspectives” does not mean a tangle of interpretive theory laid on the past. The curator, Kristina Van Dyke, a former director of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, proposes that anyone can relate to African art by looking hard and asking basic questions. She asks some herself in exhibition wall texts.

 

Why did ivory have such prestige? Because it took so much skill and time to carve. Delicate reliefs spiraling down the length of a 19th-century tusk aren’t just evidence of formal finesse; they’re records of high-pay man-hours. Why did artists combine dissimilar and often unbeautiful materials, as in a bundle-like charm made of lizard claws, fibers and beads? Because different things carry different energies, and when difference connects, it ignites, like steel striking stone, new power.

 

Ms. Van Dyke asks a question that all museums showing traditional African art should ask: How did this come to be here? And she answers forthrightly: Some pieces were made as gifts; some were sold by their owners; others were confiscated. A magnificent set of 16th-century Benin bronze plaques were among thousands of items ripped from shrines and altars by British troops in 1897, then auctioned, and auctioned again. Then, at the end of the show, Ms. Van Dyke lays history aside in a display of Kota reliquary figures that float, like angel-winged astronauts, across a gallery wall. The installation is fantasy; such sculptures would never have been seen like that. But they make a celestial sight, and celestial is the essence of what these guardians of deceased ancestors were.

 

The other four segments of “Creative Africa” — which, apart from Ms. Van Dyke, has been organized by the Philadelphia Museum curators Peter Barberie, Dilys Blum, H. Kristina Haugland, Kathryn Bloom Hiesinger and John Vick — bring us into the present, but a present infiltrated by the past and pushing toward the future.

 

Two of the artists in “Three Photographers/Six Cities” keep us on the move. Ananias Léki Dago, based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, takes us from the black shebeens, or social clubs, of Johannesburg to the sheet-metal neighborhoods of Nairobi and the dusty boulevards of Bamako. With Akinbode Akinbiyi, a British citizen of Nigerian descent, we walk the streets of Lagos and the alleyways of Cairo, where pyramids loom like mirages.

 

Of the three photographers, the youngest, Seydou Camara, born in Mali in 1983, is the time traveler. Since 2009, he has focused his attention on the desert city of Timbuktu, shooting, close-up, some of the many thousands of ancient manuscripts stored there in madrasas and homes, survivors of the political turmoil that engulfed the city two years ago.

 

Innovation as much as preservation is the impulse behind “The Architecture of Francis Kere: Building for Community,” a snapshot-sized look at a Berlin-based architect who has done much of his formative work in his home village, Gando, in Burkina Faso. His projects there — schools, a library, housing — have been based on homegrown construction methods enhanced by imported technology. It’s a model he’s followed elsewhere in Africa — in the extraordinary Center for Earth Architecture, in Mopti, Mali — and more recently in China, Europe and the Middle East, designing public spaces that promote a village-based ethos of cooperation.

 

Cultural tides move in many directions, and Africa gets as much as it gives. It got something fabulous when, a century or so ago, a modest Dutch textile manufacturer began sending brilliantly colored and patterned fabrics its way. This story is told in “Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage,” by far the most vivacious of the “Creative Africa” shows. Vlisco is the modern name of the company, which is in the Netherlands and still producing wax-printed fabric styles so closely associated with West African and Central African fashion that most people assume that they are African-made.

 

Where Africa can lay creative claim to them is at the marketing level. It is in Africa that the Vlisco designs have always been given their identifying names, some cozy, some extravagant: Happy Family, Sword of Kingship, Love Bomb, Ungrateful Husband, Hibiscus, Mercedes Benz. These change from region to region; some are generations old. But whatever they’re called, the patterns are eye-popping, and the museum has lined four walls of a gallery with samples of them.

 

It’s a terrific display. And to top it off, a platform in the center of the room is crowded with mannequins dressed in couture made from such fabrics by some of Africa’s top fashion designers: Lanre da Silva Ajayi, Leonie Amangoua, Pepita Djoffon, Josephine Memel and Ruhimbasa Nyenyezi Seraphine, with Philadelphia’s Ikire Jones thrown in.

 

You could spend deep-diving hours here — each object label is a collectible nugget of cultural information — before depressurizing in the slighter, drier final show, “Threads of Tradition,” which is about the mechanics of textile making, illustrated with examples from the Philadelphia Museum’s holdings. I was a little surprised to see these. The museum has no galleries of African art but, it turns out, has been acquiring it for years. Two gorgeous Fang figures in Ms. Van Dyke’s exhibition were gifts from Walter and Louise Arensberg, best known as patrons of American modernism, but African art fans, too.

 

As African art collectors, though, they had nothing on Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), a hometown pharmaceutical entrepreneur who, in the early 1920s, while amassing a ton of European art, also bought more than a hundred African sculptures and masks. You can see many of them, surrounded by Modigliani and Matisse works, at the Barnes Foundation. And these ensembles are reminders that he was a buyer with a social (he would have said educational) mission: He wanted to integrate black artists, African and African-American, into the panorama of world art.

 

He would surely have been pleased to play host to “Nari Ward: Sun Splashed,” a midcareer retrospective of a New York artist who has woven Africa, via its Caribbean diaspora, into his art. Organized by Diana Nawi of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, this isn’t a big show, and it doesn’t include Mr. Ward’s best-known installations, like the 1993 “Amazing Grace,” with its hundreds of abandoned baby carriages, or the 1996 “Happy Smilers: Duty Free Shopping,” with its fire escape. But it’s potent, and right on target for a Black-Lives-Matter American moment.

 

Born in Jamaica in 1963, Mr. Ward studied art in New York City in the late 1980s and ’90s, when the market had bottomed out, and artists long excluded — black, Latino, Asian-America — were finding points of entry. Mr. Ward scavenged the material of his art from the streets of Harlem, and its content from personal experience and history, including the history of racial politics and popular religion.

 

The two merge in one of the show’s earliest pieces, the 1995 “Iron Heavens,” a kind of altar screen pieced together from black oven pans, against which lean baseball bats, fire-scorched and covered with patchy tufts of cotton. The bats look lethal, though the cotton softens them, as does the churchly setting. They may be weapons, but they are weapons, at least for the moment, laid down.

 

Mr. Ward’s political reflexes are keen but measured, layered. The 2004 installation called “Glory,” a tanning bed constructed from oil barrels and designed to burn stars and stripes on the skin, is a response to what he views as the xenophobic and mercenary war in Iraq, but one that relates that war to another war, the one he sees waged daily by America on its black citizens. Exploitation is also the message of the 2010 “AfroChase,” a street-found bank advertisement that Mr. Ward has embellished with cowrie shells and Afro picks, turning it into a spiritually charged black-power charm against the gentrification of his Harlem neighborhood.

 

Few 21st-century artists have made stronger and more textured visual statements about racism, failed justice and exile-at-home than this one has. And none have come up with images more poetic. The show’s most recent work, “Oriented Right,” from 2015, a sheet of patina-stained copper punctured with holes and hung on the wall, looks abstract, storyless, history-free, impersonal.

 

But if you reposition the piece, take it down from the wall and lay it flat, it changes, reveals itself. The patina stains are traces left by the artist’s feet as he walked or danced across the surface. The holes were inspired by some he saw in the floor of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., drilled in the 19th century as air holes for hidden fugitive slaves. Mr. Ward has arranged the holes to form African cosmological symbols. Now, if you put the piece back on the wall, you’ll see something new again: nebulas, sun storms, and stars to navigate by in a summer night sky.

 

“Creative Africa” is at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Avenue, through January; 215-763-8100, philamuseum.org. The five exhibitions in it close on different dates, the earliest on Sept. 25. “Nari Ward: Sun Splashed” runs through Aug. 22 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway; 215-278-7200, barnesfoundation.org.