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>  News Releases >   2003 >   July

African sculpture re-examined

Posted 07/28/03, by Sharon Reed
Originally published in Vox of Dartmouth (Vol XXII • Issue 4)

19th-century Nkisi figure made of wood and mixed media. Unknown artist, Kongo peoples, Solongo sstyle, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola. (photo courtesy of the Hood Museum of Art)
Sculptures are open to scrutiny, and so is museum tradition

An exhibition of African art at the Hood Museum of Art offers a new twist on interpretation. A Point of View: Africa on Display? opened on July 5 in Gutman Gallery and highlights six objects from the museum's African collections, including two figures, two masks, a house post, and a staff. Although displayed in a traditional museum setting, this exhibition utilizes an innovative series of rhetorical questions and multi-layered labels that encourage visitors to think about how standard museum practice and their own personal experiences influence their relationships to other cultures through art. The self-reflective format of this exhibition reveals how the display and viewing of African art informs us about our own culture, our changing perceptions, and our ways of relating to other cultures of the world.

Museum visitors have the option to learn about the history, significance, and cultural role of each object on display, as well as its place within Western cultural practice. A carved Yoruba veranda post, for example, is exhibited with a traditional label identifying the post, its region and approximate date of its origin, and the material from which it was created; but Barbara Thompson, Curator of African, Oceanic, and Native American Collections, has taken the interpretive role of the museum a few steps further here by offering additional information about the local African and Western cultural practices surrounding the object and the artist who may have created it. In the case of the veranda post, she discusses the idea that although

Early 20th century house post made of Iroko wood by an unknown artist, School of Agunna of Oke-Igbira, Editi-Yoruba peoples, Nigeria. (photo courtsey of the Hood Museum of Art)

Western art history has a long tradition of researching artists' lives, individuals' styles, and artistic influences, many studies of African art have perpetuated the notion of anonymous artists without histories that recall their unique achievements. For the most part, the makers of such objects are presented as "cultures" rather than "individuals." Thompson also offers a second level of information on Yoruba master carvers, their work environments, and styles. Visitors who wish to delve deeper into the cultural context of the veranda post can learn about the historical importance of such posts as architectural elements in the royal palaces of Yoruba kings. Other labels in the exhibition provide poetry, prayers, quotes, and definitions to futher reveal the multifaceted dynamics of these objects in African and Western contexts. Viewers are invited to record their own points of view about the exhibition in a guest book provided in the gallery, which in itself will then become an integral part of the exhibition.

-Sharon Reed

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