VRA 2013, Documenting African Art, Pawloski


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Presented by Carole Pawloski at the Annual Conference of the Visual Resources Association, April 3rd - April 6th, 2013, in Providence, Rhode Island.

Session #09: Documenting the Art of Africa: Creating New Vocabularies
ORGANIZER: Karen Kessel, Sonoma State University
MODERATOR: Carole Pawloski, Eastern Michigan University
Debra Klein, Bard College
Jennifer Larson, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Carole Pawloski, Eastern Michigan University
Endorsed by the Education Committee

Over 100 years ago, artists like Picasso and Gauguin found novel inspiration for their art in the creative works of art from exotic places like Africa and the South Pacific. Digital technology has created the ability to more widely share the resources that we manage yet our vocabulary in describing them is limited. Most Western cultures still view traditional arts of the African continent with a Western aesthetic. People are more interested in how the work is formally viewed than its original function or how and why it was created and how it is displayed. There is often much lacking with record descriptions, cataloging and display that would both enhance the work and give viewers a more accurate understanding of each object. More complete records would enhance the usefulness of object records for multiple disciplines. The influence of African art on the work of Western artists could be documented in the object records. This session will strive to provide these missing elements and further cultural understanding by presenting some of the concerns about the documentation of objects being addressed by current scholars in African art history and related fields. It will touch on the evolving standards and codification of traditional African art, the multiplicity of functionality within objects, and how to better convey meaning through the documentation and contextual display of objects. At the same time, we need to be aware that these cultures may express a need to limit the sharing of information about works that have special significance to their own cultural communities or ethnic groups.
Thursday April 4, 2013 1:35pm - 2:55pm

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  • Sally Price in her Primitive Art in Civilized Places defines Western art as having a “definitional prerogative” by setting the standards of what art is, should be, and how it is described. (Saltzstein, p.99) The Western perception of nonwestern art may show a certain tunnel vision and arrogance by having only a surface understanding of what art from indigenous nonwestern societies is about. Some think Westerners have a better understanding of aesthetics, so they should determine its definitions. In actuality traditional nonwestern art is well aware of aesthetics attached to a long history of codification. Keeping the same standards only limits what we see or accept. We need to be able to accurately evaluate and enjoy nonwestern art from its original intent. Now that nonwestern art is rightfully being exhibited in art museums rather than exclusively in natural history museums, we should consider providing more contextual information to complete this work. Today, I will try to expand or even change one’s perspective by talking about how this applies to the traditional art of Africa.
  • Traditional African art in a museum setting is customarily displayed behind plexi-glass and on a pedestal. Is that still acceptable or are there better ways? Quite often we go to a gallery in an art museum and see some beautiful African objects with a brief description. We ask ourselves what is this piece about? Even the caption is limited because the work often has neither date nor artist. Why is that? The non-or general dating is due to several factors. One is that much of the traditional sculpture of Africa is made of wood. Wood does not last more than about 150 years because of its fragility when exposed to termites and the elements. Also, the art in its original setting may only be kept until it fulfills its intended purpose. Then it is discarded. But why isn’t the artist identified? Often only the local people or same ethnic group knows who the traditional African artist is. The artist is considered to have special powers and may be ostracized from everyone else in the community. In this case, his name may be kept secret even from his own society. How much of the contextual information should be included or is even available? How accurate is it? What are good resources? Whether it is in a museum, database, or classroom, are we as Visual Resources providers obligated to describe objects from our own or the nonwestern perspective? The purpose of creating traditional African art is quite different than the modern or contemporary perspective, whether it is African or Western. Much of the meaning of the traditional is disguised and only available to a privileged few. Each portion is stylized to convey a particular meaning that accompanies the object’s function.
  • For example, if we look at an Ashanti akuaba figure from Ghana, we see very exaggerated and simplified features in the object itself. This is not from the sculptor’s lack of ability to create an exact likeness of a child. The akuaba is a fertility object that is used to assist the requestor in conceiving and giving birth to a beautiful baby girl. The prominent disk-like large flattened head acts as an attribute of wisdom. Whether or not you believe in the efficacy of these objects should not affect your decision to provide a complete description. To digress, I have actually tested the object’s effectiveness with my sister-in-law and one of my students, who both were having difficulty conceiving. After obtaining an akuaba doll, both women gave birth to beautiful baby girls. To limit a caption to title, artist, and material for this type of object does not seem to do it justice. Its abstraction does have aesthetic appeal, especially to the modernists, but traditional objects do not allow much variation or experimentation due to strict codification from the culture. The code relates to its specific meaning that is dictated and understood only by those from whom it originates. Interaction is also essential with this piece. The woman must wear the doll, feed it and clothe it to insure its success.
  • A modern Western interpretation might be preferred for more originality, but what would a diasporic piece that incorporates the same object look like and say? The African American artist Charnelle Holloway created “Fertility Belt for the Career Woman.” in 1995 with a repousséakuaba doll. There is a definite message here that blends both the western and nonwestern cultures. The symbolic traditional African art objects relate to modern western women’s need to balance family and career. Holloway’s purpose is political, whereas the African one is magical. How much explanation is needed for either? We all know that the more we understand, the richer our experience. Should these objects be more thoroughly explained through descriptions and metadata?
  • Other themes and rituals are prevalent in African ethnic cultures that might better explain the basis for their art. African animistic societies place a great deal of power and secrecy with the wild. The inclusion of materials from nature gives their art protection and meaning due to accumulation and history. When we look at the Bamana hunter’s shirt from Mali, we see it covered in amulets filled with Koranic verse and trophies of claws, horns, etc. from the owner’s conquests. Each adds significance and potency to the shirt to shield its owner from danger. More is better. The hunter shirt is never washed and must be worn to ensure the wearer’s success.
  • Along the same lines is a contemporary Malian artist AbdoulayeKonaté ’s textile wall hanging. I met the artist in Bamako Mali and then again at the Met in NY in 2008. His work is prolific and international in scope. He is director of the Conservatory of Arts & Media in Bamako Mali. Much of his early work had a political or environmental agenda, but this piece derives from his roots. Starting out as a painter, Konaté made a major media shift in the nineties to large-scale textiles for both political and accessibility issues. These works and materials reflected the conditions and local environment of the time. Using cotton, which is Mali’s most important crop, his Gris Gris Blanc (white grisgris) was done in 2006. It is massively 90 ½ by 196 ¾ inches wide. A grisgris is a voodoo amulet originating in Africa that is believed to protect the wearer from evil or bring him luck. This piece echoes the shape and purpose of the traditional Bamana hunter’s shirt. The almost sterile wall hanging by Konaté is in stark contrast to the grimy hunter’s shirt. Both were on display together in 2008 at a gallery in NYC. How much documentation is necessary for the viewer? Why is a utilitarian object even on display? Is its original purpose relevant and for whose benefit?
  • Much of traditional African art is communal. Community support is pervasive throughout tribal Africa and necessary for survival, whereas autonomy and individualism is encouraged more in Western cultures. Today, aside from social networking, Westerners may prefer a certain degree of independence. One place where community and multiplicity is most pronounced in African culture is in masking. In 2008 on my visit to Mali, I was fortunate enough to experience and film a Dogondama masquerade. Most masquerades today are done for entertainment and revenue, but there still is the involvement of the entire community. The women and children may only participate as observers. The men are the performers, musicians, dancers and artists. The Dogondama is an annual funerary mask showing respect to the Dogon ancestors and to complete the journey of the recently deceased to the ancestor world. It was originally very secretive with only the initiated understanding the symbolism and ritual meanings.
  • The dama has a variety of around 65 different masks and dances with the most well known being the kanaga mask. The kanaga is black, white and red in a bird-like shape. The dancer points to the earth and ancestor worlds during his performance. The dancer twirls around pointing this large superstructure towards the heavens and the earth, requiring much neck strength. The body is entirely camouflaged to conceal the identity of the performer. Each dancer is a young strong male who is competing to the next grade level. He carves and designs his own mask, which is confined to a rather strict canon allowing him little room for creativity.
  • What about motion? Whether looking at a Yoruba egungun mask or a performance piece of the contemporary African American artist Nick Cave, movement is essential. How might we as Visual Resources Librarians or museum exhibition installers convey this aspect of a piece? For a museum display, additional information might be on a short video, audio set, ipad, or even a laminated sheet. For the Visual Resource librarians, a database could have a link reference to an online video or other related records.
  • There are several stylistic characteristics that are intrinsic to traditional African art and are important to the work as far as function and effectiveness. Traditional objects often emphasize accumulation, animism, codification, visual canonical abstraction, performance, ceremony, community, anonymity, nyama (life force), ritual, secrecy, symbolism, multiplicity, and interaction. Unlike Western art, where aesthetics is often the primary goal, traditional African art is created to solve a particular problem or issue such as ancestor worship, fertility, or rites of passage. Should these attributes and categories be included as metadata where it applies? When we consider a standard in African art, we usually refer to sculpture. Who determines what art is selected? Collectors, auction houses, or just an item’s lack of portability or access sometimes dictate a preference. Fortunately, this is beginning to change, especially with contemporary African art.
  • Recently, I experienced a large local exhibit of the work of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui at the University of Michigan. Approaching his 70s, El Anatsui is gaining international attention and in high demand. The more traditional and now commercial kente cloth inspires some of his work. But he combines his indigenous background with the contemporary. Using found objects and discarded bottle caps, he creates large-scale masterpieces that hang like textiles on walls and buildings. His process is unconventional and evolving. He begins by gathering recycled materials, which are sewn together with copper wire by a large crew of workers. Then the multi-colored sheets are spread out and rearranged until Anatsui decides on a composition, taking up to a few months to arrange. Once those sheets are attached, the finished piece is crated and shipped folded up to a museum or other venue for exhibition. The last step allows the curator and installers a great deal of leeway as to how to hang or arrange each work. This approach is quite different from the usual Western display of art in Europe and the US. Now how can we merge the traditional versus modern methods of display or make that connection? El Anatsui may be showing us ways.Anatsui brings international exposure and new ways of installation for African art in galleries and beyond as he also drapes his wall hangings within and outside of buildings. His is a unique solution for the exhibition of today’s African art, but where does that leave us with exhibiting and documenting the traditional?
  • One thing we could attempt to do is provide some idea of context and relationships. In a museum gallery, masks might be better seen with their accompanying full body costume. This could be viewed on display or even with a video of the performance. Objects could have information in the form of photos and/or text to describe their purpose and context.
  • Since we do not always have access to the accompanying information for art from another culture, should we document only what is familiar? Are we assuming too much or even being invasive by trying to explain another culture so different from our own? In Africa’s tribal areas, one has to earn the right to learn the meanings of color and symbolic markings. They believe that the secretive should only be unlocked by a select few who learn more at each earned grade level. Should we not be concerned with uncovering specific meaning, but rather look at the objects primarily for their intrinsic beauty? Should we leave anthropological descriptions to natural history museums and evaluate art objects from other cultures primarily from our own viewpoint? Documenting traditional African art is rarely generated from its origins. Tribal cultures have no interest in record keeping and objects are often illegally taken from them. Once an object reaches a collector or buyer, they as outsiders determine its value. Today we are privy to viewing substantial numbers of African art objects in museums or as photographs. Identifying them may be minimal or largely inaccurate, so we need to find the best authority resources in order to properly appreciate and understand what they are about. By informing the viewing public in an honest and thorough manner, we can broaden our horizons to be more inclusive of cultures different from our own.
  • VRA 2013, Documenting African Art, Pawloski

    1. 1. Carole PawloskiEastern Michigan UniversityYaëlle BiroMetropolitan Museum of ArtDebra KleinBard CollegeVisual Resources Association Annual Conference 2013Providence Rhode IslandEndorsed by the VRA Education Committee
    2. 2. What is Missing:When Aesthetics Leave theContextual BehindCarole Pawloskicpawloski@emich.eduVisual Resources Librarian, Professor of African ArtEastern Michigan UniversityApril 4, 2013Session: “Documenting Art of Africa: Creating New Vocabularies.”
    3. 3. Norfolk State University Art Gallery. Traditional display.
    4. 4. Ghana. Ashanti group. Akuaba doll. Wood, beads.Height. 10 inches
    5. 5. CharnelleHolloway. “Fertility Belt for the CareerWoman.” 1995. repoussé metal, cowrie shells, raffia
    6. 6. Mali. Bamana group. Hunter’s shirt. Amulets, cotton,animal skin, claws, horns
    7. 7. Mali. AbdoulayeKonaté. Gris Gris Blanc (whitegrisgris)2006. 90 x 196 ¾ inches, cotton.
    8. 8. Mali. Dogon group. Dama masquerade. 2008.
    9. 9. Mali. Dogon group. Kanaga mask (on left). 2008.
    10. 10. Nick Cave. Soundsuit. 2009.fake fur, height. 70 inchesNigeria. Yoruba group. Egungun mask.Fabric, wood. Height. 72 inches
    11. 11. accumulation, animism, codification, visualcanonical abstraction, performance,ceremony, community, anonymity, nyama(life force), ritual, secrecy, symbolism,multiplicity, and interactionTraditional African ArtStylistic Characteristics
    12. 12. Ghana. El Anatsui. Earth’s Skin. 2007. aluminum bottlecaps, copper wire
    13. 13. Detroit Institute of ArtsDetroit Institute of Arts. Detroit, MI
    14. 14. Traditional African Art examples