It was the second time I’d been to the National Museum of African Art, in fact. The first time had been for the Craft in America conference back in 2010, for a reception and an exhibition of traditional Southern sweetgrass basketry which included work by Mary Jackson, the foremost contemporary sweetgrass basketmaker. I’d remembered that the building had fine, solid architecture, of a kind of melding between classical greco-roman and ancient Egyptian. A marvelous stairwell which had one central stairs down to the second floor (that’s right), and then two stairs on the outside down to the third floor. An excellent reversal of space. Anyways, the exhibition was rather good too, and so I’d always had a fairly appreciative opinion of the museum since.
This second time was at the insistence of a friend and craft colleague of mine, Jane Milosch, who is director at the Smithsonian Provenance Research Initiative and actually a rather important person. Believe me, she gets the job done. Anyways, it was our first night in D.C. (I was there with my mom) and though she apologized for dragging us out just when we’d be wanting to settle down, she assured us it’d be worth it and boy it was.
To get an appreciation for the exhibition one has to understand that there are levels of art, the more common stuff which everyone has access to and the more layered and inscrutable levels. So in African art, especially including tribal art, as in all others. Africa is not one big giant place, it is separated into many regions, so there are distinctions and varieties. In this case, the masks and jewelry (and textiles, glee!) at this exhibition were from Liberia, and its neighboring country of Sierra Leone. And they belonged to secret societies. So secret, it happens, that everyone’s a part of them; they’re male and female initiatory societies in those cultures. Any ways, to make a long story short, these were the best of the best. Extremely well made, rare, unusual, perhaps esoteric and arcane?, certainly archaic, and glimpses into the parts of lives other people are living right now. Most of the masks in the exhibition are made from wood, but because of the deep dark tone of the wood it can sometimes be mistaken for stone or metal. Imposing, they have a robust dialogue of visual components that projects a feeling, a narrative, which is presumably what the creator intended. Most feel like they are tribal chiefs, with the stiff, thick head and flat face and features seeming abrupt and asserting a stolid and confident aura.
"The Loma peoples of northwestern Liberia and adjacent areas of Guinea use masks during events related to Poro, the male initiation society that supervises and regulates sexual, social, and political conduct within the community. Such societies are secret in the sense that members acquire knowledge that cannot be divulged to the uninitiated. Higher status within Poro means greater knowledge gained.
To carry out the Poro society's responsibilities, high-ranking members impersonate important spirits by donning masks and performing in public. The gazelégi mask and the Loma masks in adjacent cases correspond to three different spirits but are worn the same way—like a cap—and use a combination of animal and human forms to reflect their supernatural essence."
Excerpt from the exhibition
This is one line of masks; there are a few examples of another style of masks, called Gongoli; these are monstrous fool masks, the role of the jester, playing some intricate foil through exaggerated and misshapen features. Each seems like they must have had their own part to play in their rituals and interactions with daily life. The African culture of Liberia and Sierra Leone comes through this exhibition like as through a strange lens, since this is the culture for a tribal area, at once connected to but also separated from urban existence which is the majority for most of us in the United States as well as those in the two other countries. We are separated partly by a wall of pantomime and theater which exists as an intermediary between our different worlds.
The jewelry in the show is quite fabulous, securing the keystone for a landmark exhibition. Though only a few examples, they are stunning ones, mainly because the choices were to find the most unusual expressions of Liberian and Leonese art. A square silver pendant that steps progressively inwards to become a pyramid is both robust and visually intriguing. Another pendant uses some animal horn with silver to create a fine display of contrast and craftsmanship. As a last example of the surprisingly choice samples of jewelry in the show, look no further than the barrel pendant, like other pieces in the exhibit hung on a silver chain. Whatever imagery or symbolism it represents, the big metal barrel resembles an oil drum. Evocative and unusual, the pendant, like the whole exhibition, titillates the mind and tickles it.
The show’s content is finely matched with a spacious environment and atmospherics. Ambient bird song is the accompaniment to patterns of light, like through a forest canopy, carpeting the floor with bright flashes mixed with shadow. The captions all have additional information, either about the particular piece, or on certain aspects of tribal culture in Sierra Leone and Liberia that relate to the piece. The explanation for the gongoli masks is one such example.
With such a breadth of breathtaking objects, augmented by fine research, historical and anthropological tidbits, and, if I may say so, an objectively stunning aesthetic running throughout the masks, jewelry, and textiles, I cannot recommend Visions of the Forest: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone enough. The exhibit takes place at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., and ends August 17, 2014.