This post was submitted by one of AAA’s 2016 summer interns, Chrislyn Laurore, an anthropology student at Mount Holyoke College.
By now, many of us who have taken interest in the world of African art have found art historians more willing to acknowledge the role of African sculpture and mask-making in the development of modern art. I was able to observe these similarities firsthand while working on a research project for NMAfA’s Senior Conservator, Dana Moffett. Dana was preparing for a presentation that would analyze the ways in which conservation practices have evolved alongside the changes in collecting since the 19th century. Tasked with finding images to support her arguments, including the prevalence of African aesthetics in Picasso’s famous works, I turned to the museum’s current exhibitions for inspiration.
The Ngil mask pictured above is one of many pieces from the museum’s permanent collection on display in the African Mosaic exhibit. Created by Fang artists in southern Cameroon and northern Gabon, these masks were used ritualistically by men belonging to the Ngil society to pursue and punish sorcerers. Typically worn at night, the exaggerated features were intended to terrify. Ngil masks began to disappear during the early 20th century after being outlawed by missionaries and colonial powers. Incidentally, this is around the same time they began to appear on the art market as well as in paintings now rendered famous by European artists, such as Pablo Picasso’s La Grande Danseuse d’Avignon.
This project brought to mind current popular discourse around cultural appropriation. While artists like Picasso and Matisse thoroughly scandalized more traditional sensibilities, their work has long eschewed the label of primitivism that (until recently) has been associated with African art. Speaking with Dr. Kreamer about the challenges that come with being an African art curator confirmed that museum-goers are both more familiar with – and more willing to go see – works of art created by Westerners. I find both pieces absolutely beautiful. But if there’s an African art exhibit anywhere near you, I would definitely recommend seeing the original.
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