In their search for new modes of expression, avant-garde artists during the early 20th centurysuch as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Henri Matissefound inspiration in objects from Africa and Oceania. Their "discovery" of these objects from distant places, which had made their way into the marketplace in Paris, New York, and other major cities, elevated these artifacts to much-sought-after works of art. Photography aided this transformation, shifting the perception of pieces previously considered ethnographic or merely utilitarian to works of art and, in the process, created new, appreciative audiences. An exploration of this evolution is presented in Object, Image, Collector: African and Oceanic Art in Focus, an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
(MFA), that draws from 20 Boston-area collections and the collections of the MFA. On view December 12, 2009, through July 18, 2010, in the Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa Gallery on the Museums second floor, it features some 50 objects, including three-dimensional works and textiles (many of which have never been shown publicly), photographs, and illustrated books.
"We are pleased to feature these works from Boston-area collections, the first such exhibition at the MFA and a culmination of the Museums efforts to reach out to the community of collectors. The MFAs commitment to the arts of Africa and Oceania began in the 1990s, when William E. and Bertha L. Teel generously donated objects that now form the core of the Museums growing holdings. In 2003, the Museum hired its first Curator of African and Oceanic Art, a position made possible by the Teel Fund. Six years later, this exhibition highlights some exquisite and rarely seen objects from 20 local collections and demonstrates how the friends of these arts have been instrumental in making the Museums activities a success. We are grateful to them for their support," said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA.
Object, Image, Collector offers a chronological examination of the ascent of African and Oceanic objects to the status of works of art. The exhibition begins with The Artists Eye, which explores the growing interest in these daring and expressive works during the early decades of the 20th century. It is followed by two sections, Arts from the South Seas and Classical African Arts, which look at the ensuing years when many collectors began to acquire well-known, now iconic types of figures and masks. The exhibition concludes with New Regions and New Forms, Media, and Research in African Art, two sections that focus on the decades from the 1950s onward, when the conception of what constitutes African and Oceanic art was broadened and redefined.
"For many years, the histories of collecting African and Oceanic objects and the way these pieces moved into the domain of art in the 20th century have intrigued me. Artists were the first to embrace these objects. Exhibitions in art museums and galleries followed and also played a role in their reinterpretation, but the impact of photography in promoting this shift has been neglected. When Boston-area collectors kindly showed me their objects and shared with me their extensive knowledge of the pieces histories, realized that the story of African and Oceanic objects from artifact to art could be told through the lens of these collections, and the idea for this exhibition took shape," said Christraud Geary, Teel Senior Curator of African and Oceanic Art, who curated the exhibition with Karen Haas, The Lane Collection Curator of Photographs at the MFA.
The Artists Eye
Artists in the early 1900s who questioned the conventions and formalism of European art were drawn to the abstract beauty of ceremonial and utilitarian objects from Africa, especially Central and West Africa. In New York, an influential 1914 exhibition of African sculpture at 291 Gallery, owned by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, celebrated these new arts. Photographyitself an evolving art formcast these objects in a new light when Stieglitz recorded the exhibition with his own documentary images, which he featured in the 1916 issue of Camera Work. The MFAs copy of the magazine is on view in Object, Image, Collector, as is an iconic Kota reliquary figure from Gabon in the Karob Collectionsimilar to one shown at 291 Gallery nearly a century ago.
Avant-garde artists were intrigued by the way African art challenged long-held tenets of Western art, especially in the depiction of the human body. Geometric forms (as seen in the Kota figure) resonated with Cubists such as the American painter Max Weber, who first became familiar with African art while working in Matisses studio in 1908. A photograph by Clara Sipprell in the Museums collection depicting Weber admiring a small Yaka figure from central Africa that he had brought back from Paris is included in the exhibition. Also on view is a superb 19th-century reliquary guardian figure from the Fang peoples in Gabon (a promised gift in honor of William E. and the late Bertha L. Teel), as well as an elegant Baule figure from the Hien H. Nguyen Collection, and a Mano mask (private collection). These are paired with the images of similar objects taken during the 1910s by photographer Charles Sheeler, whose engagement with these works helped to promote them. His photograph Six West African Figures (191719) demonstrates Sheelers use of directional lighting and the resulting deep shadows that create a dramatic effect. Sheeler is recognized as one of the founders of American modernism and one of the master photographers of the 20th century. All eight of his photographs included in Object, Image, Collector are drawn from The Lane Collectionthe largest and most comprehensive holding of Sheelers photographs in the worldwhich is on long-term loan at the MFA.
"It was fascinating for me to realize the very early role that Sheelers photographs played in the reception of African art as works of fine art rather than ethnographic objects. His groundbreaking book, African Negro Wood Sculpture (1918), for which most of these photographs were made, was the first of its kind in America. Because Sheeler, like so many of his contemporaries, had fallen under the spell of Cubism, his striking images emphasize the formal and expressive qualities of these objects and focus on their rich surface textures and abstract forms," said curator Karen Haas.
The exhibition also highlights the newfound interest in Oceanic arts, which in the early 20th century were sometimes mistaken as African. Objects from the Pacific did not garner much attention until the 1920s, when the Surrealists, looking for fresh inspiration, were drawn to the mystical, imaginative qualities of these objects from the South Seas. In 1926, a landmark exhibition featuring works by expatriate American artist Man Ray at the Galerie Surréaliste in Paris also showcased 60 Oceanic objects from the holdings of his friends André Breton, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, and Pablo Picasso. A brochure in the Museums collection, which accompanied the Surrealist exhibition, is included in Object, Image, Collector. On its cover is a photograph taken by Man Ray of a Nias figure from Indonesia, which closely resembles one on display in the MFAs show, lent by the Dashow Collection. Other South Seas works in this section from what is today Papua New Guinea include a rare late 19th-century Witu helmet mask and a Lake Sentani figure, both from the Teel Collection, and an 84-inch-tall hook figure from the Yimar peoples in the Timothy Phillips Collection.
Arts from the South Seas and Classical African Arts
During the 1930s African art entered the mainstream, catapulted in 1935 by the groundbreaking Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition African Negro Art curated by James Johnson Sweeney. It featured more than 600 objects from private and museum collections in Europe and the United States. To document the massive show, Sweeney commissioned photographer Walker Evans to shoot almost 500 objects for a portfolio to be donated to historically black colleges. Evanss modernist approach to this assignment is exemplified by four photographs selected from the portfolio, which have been lent to the MFA by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. These include the close-cropped, softly lit image of a Ci Wara antelope headdress and a Korè mask from the Bamana peoples of Mali.
Several Boston-area collections which were formed as early as the 1950s reflect the classical canon of African and Oceanic art, focusing primarily on wood sculpture and masks like those in the 1935 MoMA show. Notable examples from these collections are showcased in the MFAs exhibition: a Dogon figure from Mali (Karob Collection), a pair of Yoruba twin figures from Nigeria (Allen Collection), and a Kuyu carving of a head from the Republic of the Congo, in the Harvey and Phyllis Baumann Collection. Also included are several major objects lent by the Teel Collection; William E. Teel and his late wife Bertha L. Teel, both publishers, became interested in the arts of Africa and the South Seas beginning in the 1950s. Some 20 years later, William Teel compiled photographs of classical African and Oceanic works for his University Prints series of introductory art historical materials and examples of these are on view in the exhibition as well.
New Regions and New Forms, Media, and Research in African Art
During the second half of the 20th century, as discerning collectors and the evolving art market began to appreciate new regions in Africa and Oceania, the classical canon was broadened. Sculptures such as a male figure from the Tiv peoples (Marian Marill Collection) and a dramatic figure from the Montol peoples (Allen Collection), both from Nigerias Benue River Valley, came to be prized. Objects from South Africa gained attention, such as a beaded apron from the Ndebele peoples (Suzanne Priebatsch and Natalie Knight Collection) on view in the exhibition. Works from "tribal" Indonesia in the South Pacific were acquired by collectors, as seen in two Flores figures (Dashow Collection) and a door from Timor.
New media, such as iron and bronze, also became popular, as in a large Topoke iron blade from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from the Alan Helms Collection and works in clay, among them a Nupe terracotta vessel from Nigeria (Olaperi Onipede Collection). In addition, the exhibition showcases exquisite textiles, such as an Okpella masqueraders costume with headdress from Nigeria (Courtesy of Jean Borgatti) and a woven mat from the Ot Danum peoples in Borneo from the Jeff Spurr Collection; colorful works integrating glass beads, as seen in a finely beaded leather skirt from the Iraqw peoples in Tanzania from the Jeff Spurr Collection; and a musical instrument from the DRC, a slit gong lent by the Bardar Collection.
Object, Image, Collector also demonstrates the ways in which African art continues to inspire modern and contemporary artists. For example, Romare Bearden appropriated African forms in his powerful collage entitled Mysteries (MFA, 1964), and Willie Coles print Silex Male, Ritual (MFA, 2004) features the artists body "branded" with a household iron, referencing the domestic work of African-American women and the iconography of Middle Passage slave ships in its design.
To enhance the appreciation of Object, Image, Collector, two gallery talks will be presented: Thursday, December 17, at 11 a.m. with Christraud Geary, Teel Senior Curator of African and Oceanic Art, and Wednesday, March 31, 2010, at 6 p.m. with Geary and Karen Haas, The Lane Collection Curator of Photographs. These one-hour talks are free with Museum admission and depart from the Sharf Visitor Center.