Hand Held: Personal Arts from Africa
At The Baltimore Museum of Art through Feb. 5
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African art exhibitions tend to feature exalted objects: masks, headdresses, and other pieces of ceremonial, religious, or royal distinction. The portion of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s African collection on permanent display has up until now been no exception. But a special exhibit titled Hand Held: Personal Arts From Africa takes a different tack. Drawing from the museum’s extensive permanent African art collection, one of the earliest and most important in the country, the show sets its sights instead on the mundane objects of everyday life.
The pieces, more than 80 of them, range from a sour-milk-porridge container to elaborately carved hair combs to a gourd snuff box embellished with strips of brass and iron. The objects—textiles, chairs, cups, hats—were all created in the 19th and 20th centuries, and hail from a large swath of the continent, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. The exhibition is a taste of what’s to come at the BMA; the ongoing $24 million renovation will include an upgrade to the African collection and the new display will reportedly showcase a greater variety of objects, likely including some of these prosaic items.
Despite their utility—and, in some cases, because of it—the objects in Hand Held demonstrate what is most important to a people in a way ceremonial objects cannot. A lightweight, intricately carved baggage stand fashioned by a member of the nomadic Tuareg people says more about the group’s way of life than a more august object might. The Luba people’s wooden neckrests were designed, in part, to protect their carefully coiffed hair. A crested, helmet-like hat labeled “Champion Brush Cutter’s Hat” is another case in point. Made in the early 20th century by the Dan people of Liberia, the hat is elaborately constructed of plant fibers and feathers, featuring a tall Mohawk of “brush” along the top. It was awarded to the man who was most effective at clearing the fields for agriculture.
Many of the pieces in the exhibition are striking because they remind us of the lengths human beings will go to have beauty in their lives, beyond simple function. A blue tablecloth-sized piece of cloth made by a member of the Yoruba people of Nigeria in the mid-20th century is a fine example. Made with the “adire eleko” technique, in which designs are hand-painted onto cloth with a cassava starch paste and then dyed, it features a patterned motif of abstract shapes and stylized birds, with tiny, precise details such as beaks and eyes. A video outside the gallery shows the process from beginning to end. Nigerian women laboriously concoct the indigo dye from the leaves of a plant and delicately paint the starch onto the fabric with a feather. (According to a BMA member publication, one woman in the video tastes the dye to make sure it has the right alkalinity. Unfortunately the video has no voice-over or subtitles, so the casual viewer would not understand why she tastes it.)
A collection of “heddle pulleys,” the part of a West African narrow-strip loom that suspends the heddles that keep warp threads separated during weaving, is also imaginative and surprising. One could hardly conceive of a more utilitarian object, but these are carved into human faces, bird silhouettes, and whimsical abstract shapes. (A label notes that by the late 20th century, unadorned pulleys had, sadly, become the norm.)
Because of their relatively modern provenance, some of the objects in the exhibition incorporate Western materials. In fact, as several labels note, materials acquired through foreign trade—brass tacks, factory-made cloth—often enhanced the prestige of an object. But the way in which these materials are used is often unexpected. If you look closely at the adire eleko piece, for instance, you’ll note that a factory-produced brocade lies beneath the handmade patterns. A mid-20th-century knobkerry, or club, made by the Zulu people of South Africa, features colorful woven sleeves made of telephone wire. And a small chair made in the early 20th century in Liberia was clearly inspired by European models but has been highly modified. It has a backrest made from a curved tree branch, but sits so low to the ground that it could serve as a headrest.
Here and there, exhibition panels draw some cringe-worthy parallels to our own daily lives, in an attempt to make the viewer connect with what they’re seeing. “Just as you may take pleasure in a special pen or colorful screensaver that enlivens the workday,” one reads, “West African weavers decorated their looms.” One wishes that the museum had made a greater effort to include the voices of the people who made and used the objects in the exhibition—through oral histories, narrated videos, or even simple quotes—rather than making such facile comparisons. Still, the objects themselves tell much of the story. The face on a 19th-century ivory hairpin made by the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo is a burnished mahogany color, but the nose, like that on Abraham Lincoln’s tomb, has been rubbed so often it is a shiny blond. Museum artifacts rarely feel personal, but the objects in Hand Held, particularly those with a little wear-and-tear, very much do.