A museum can be like a good teacher. It should give you enough information and examples to teach you something while you’re there, but it should also plant the seed for critical thought and further exploration. In the redesigned and revitalized African and Asian art galleries (which just reopened April 26), the Baltimore Museum of Art has taken steps to make the visitor feel more welcome, from brighter lights, higher ceilings, and more room for the objects, to more educational materials within the gallery spaces. The space for the African art collection has tripled, and currently more than 80 objects are on display; the Asian art galleries are twice the size they used to be and house more than 150 pieces.
In the African gallery, a series of 10 wooden Sande society masks perch upon little rods in front of a warm blue wall. The Sande society is a women’s society in which the elder women take pre-teen girls and teach them how to be good wives and mothers, and upon the young women’s ceremonial re-entry, the elders wear these masks and perform with them. The masks on display share certain characteristics such as rounded features and rolls around the neck area and almond-shaped eyes, but each one is made individually, with specific patterns, hairstyles, and embellishments. Some have glasses, some have little rope necklaces. Some have tusk- or horn-like appendages, others have fruit or bird shapes on the top. Each one is unique, to reflect the person who wore it.
Many of the works in the BMA’s African collection are from the 19th and 20th centuries, but there’s also a great ceramic vessel made by the Kenya-born/London-based contemporary artist Magdalene Odundo in 2010. The vessel is a smooth, asymmetrical, orange hourglass shape, with one small, pinched protrusion in the middle, like a belly button. Her work relates strongly to a number of the other objects in the space that depict the female body, but of course it’s also in conversation with modern and contemporary sculpture, from Matisse’s nudes to Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures.
Most of the objects on display in the African gallery had specific ritual functions; the crowns, robes, and masks on pedestals, encased in glass, are relics from performances. But a number of pieces throughout have a “Go Mobile” component, where you can pull up an object on your smartphone (and if you don’t have one, you can borrow an iTouch from the BMA), like the ‘Ifa Divination Bowl,’ for example, and hear a Yoruba diviner (who lives in Baltimore) talk about it and what it’s for. This, for a second, enlivens an otherwise static experience.
In the neighboring Asian galleries, we’re confronted with a slew of (mostly) Chinese ceramics that range from 2500 B.C. to 2010 A.D. These objects are organized in ways that relate to the domestic, the temple, and the tomb—the various spaces people occupy through life and death, and the kinds of ornaments or symbols that were important. One case contains a collection of censers and small vases and bowls, along with a few ceramic walnuts, chestnuts, lily bulbs, and other seedlike objects, which could be intended for decoration or maybe meditation. In the “domestic” space, the strong focus on the vessel and what each one was used for (tea, wine, incense, brush water, and so on) relates to the “temple” and its ornaments, how the temple is a vessel and how the tomb, too, becomes a vessel for the body.
Here, too, is a digital component, because people learn in different ways. A digital comic book on an iPad tells the story of Guanyin, a Chinese goddess who restores health and averts natural disasters. She appears throughout the Asian collection in various sculptures, the most impressive of which is the 15th-century ‘Water-Moon Guanyin,’ in which she sits, larger than life, perfectly poised but also casual, with an arm resting on her propped-up knee, as she gazes downward toward nothing.