It all goes back to Africa. As the source of so much that makes New Orleans unique among cities, our Afro-Caribbean heritage looms large, but the influence of Africa is also evident in American music, modern art, the history of civilization and even the origin of human DNA itself. So it is really quite surprising that it took the American cultural establishment so long to recognize the importance of African art. Fortunately, the New Orleans Museum of Art, despite its limited resources as a smaller regional institution, was unusually prescient and ahead of the curve. In 1966, NOMA director James Byrnes hired a young African art specialist named William Fagaly to assemble a major collection, and for over four decades, with the encouragement of Byrnes' successor, E. John Bullard, he did just that while making NOMA a leader in the field.
This large and varied ANCESTORS OF CONGO SQUARE expo reflects his discriminating yet relentless efforts, so it may come as a surprise that it was originally planned not as an exhibition but as a book. Many years in the making and produced by London's Scala publishing house, it premiered this past May as a massive 376 page hardback featuring some 225 color illustrations and 48 essays by leading scholars. Since Congo Square was the main locus of this city's African culture long before the museum existed, incorporating it in the title was more than appropriate. After all, Congo Square was the only place in America where slaves and free people of color could gather on Sunday afternoons to celebrate their cultural heritage, which in turn helped make New Orleans what it is today.
That said, there is also no denying the formidable exoticism of such a large exhibition of works based on the spiritual traditions of a place where nature is wildly extravagant. Like the old religions of Europe and Asia, traditional African religion was all about spiritually relating to those natural forces and, in that sense, art and religion were inseparable. Both were about the divine spark that underlies all life forms, and as the great African art scholar Robert Farris Thompson put it, when such an art work is successful, it “transcends ordinary questions about its makeup: it is divine force incarnate.” Because such works embody mystery and reflect forces that transcend our ordinary expectations, they resonate in unexpected ways. To look closely at many of these masks and carvings is to see the origins of some of Matisse and Picasso's most emblematic works even as a spirit mask from C'ote d'Ivoire, top left, appears to have presaged the blank faces of Modigliani's nudes. The pristine geometry of a Congo Mboko figure from Katanga province, above left, suggests the origins of Art Deco while, closer to home, the figures on a memorial staff from Benin, top, strikingly evoke the processionary aura of a Second Line parade. Such visual linkages--including an elaborately beaded Nigerian Yoruba costume, above right, that eerily recalls the Mardi Gras Indian suits shown at NOMA during Prospect.1--are abundant, and it seems safe to say that without those vital influences, both modern art and New Orleans culture would be vastly different, and far less interesting. ~Bookhardt
ANCESTORS OF CONGO SQUARE: African Art in the New Orleans Museum of Art,
Through July 17, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100; www.noma.org
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