Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents

Metropolitan Museum of Art

What a racket!
At least according to the title of Romuald Hazoume’s street-smart sculpture “Ear Splitting”.
I’d have to agree; this eccentric collection of contemporary sculpture by both African and American artists is a noisy, rambunctious gang of aggressively tough looking assemblages.
This exhibit expounds on how traditional African masks, meant to establish tribal, social and spiritual hierarchies, has influenced contemporary art rooted in a low-tech, scavenger ethos.
The objects here have reinvented the original African context of primitively hand-carved wooden art that invoked magic, divination, and shamanism, into a glowering group of facial symmetries fabricated from junked plastic jerricans, discarded electronica, and metallic roadside detritus that conjure up a post apocalyptic, mad max-ian aesthetic.
The two contemporary African artists in this exhibit are both from the West African republic of Benin. The exhibit seems to extend out from an indigenous Beninese spiritual practice called Vodun, which conveniently morphs into visual art much the way Voodoo imbues artificial figurines with a literal connection to deities and psychic weaponry. 
Calixte Dakpogan’s piece “Perroquet” (Parrot) is a tautly economical gesture of great expression. This mechanical bird head’s stunning simplicity of form is generated by craftsmanship of the highest order. This is has it should be.
Dakopogan, his brother and a cousin run a metalsmithing shop in Porto Novo going back generations. They are devoted to Ogun, the god of iron (and junked auto carcasses) that litter the highways and byways of this former slave trading port.
This dedication to rusted remnants recovered, and then rediscovered lends wit, irony, and a scrappy originality to a found art tradition that thrives on third world frugality.
An American artist in this show, Willie Cole, brings his forebodingly bristling headdress “Shine” to prominence in the exhibit. Based on tribal styles that feature intimidating and protruding appendages, his use of black leather high heel shoes spikes the artwork with a fetishistic slant.
“Next Kent Tji Wara” then spins us on our heels. A pink bicycle frame has been twisted and turned into a gracefully posed antelope, poised to leap. Cole’s ingenious use of unexpected sculptural fodder dovetails beautifully with what you thought the curators intended for this installation.
So I’m not exactly clear what the Benglis pieces are doing here. (the cynical side of me might even think the curators thought a sexy name was needed) This well-known art star seems incongruously out of place. Especially when presenting blown glass, a highly risky medium that always makes me cringe, and form associations with the preciously pretty.

Romuald Hazoumé (Beninese, b. 1962). Ear Splitting, 1999. Plastic can, brush, speakers. Courtesy CAAC–The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva. © Romuald Hazoumé            

Calixte Dakpogan (Beninese, b. 1958)
Perroquet (Parrot), 2005
Iron, plastic, copper; H. x W. x D.: 32 11/16 x 22 1/16 x 14 15/16 in. (83 x 56 x 38 cm)
Courtesy CAAC - The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva
© Calixte Dakpogan 

Willie Cole (American, b. 1955)
Shine, 2007
Shoes, steel wire, monofilament line, washers, and screws; H. x W. x D.: 15 3/4 x 14 x 15 in. (40 x 35.6 x 38.1 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Hortense and William A. Mohr Sculpture Purchase Fund, 2008

Willie Cole (American, b. 1955)
Next Kent Tji Wara, 2007
Bicycle parts, spray paint, and brazing; H. x W. x D.: 37 x 20 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (94 x 52.1 x 21 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Hortense and William A. Mohr Sculpture Purchase Fund, 2008 (2008.260)

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