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'Creative Africa' at the Art Museum: The power of African art in five shows

One of the first things visitors encounter in "Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art," the centerpiece exhibition of the five-show "Creative Africa" event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a diviner's kit.

One of the first things visitors encounter in "Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art," the centerpiece exhibition of the five-show "Creative Africa" event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a diviner's kit.

The kit, from the Ovimbundu culture of Angola, consists of an array of seemingly miscellaneous objects, including some tiny figurines, a colored crystalline rock, and a number of more enigmatic items. The diviner carried them in a basket, and when someone sought his advice or predictions, he tossed them out. His skill was in looking at how they landed and interpreting the position and juxtaposition of the objects in a way that was useful to those who sought his services.

His task was a little bit like an exhibition curator faced with a couple hundred objects produced by several dozen distinct cultures from different parts of a vast continent. The individual objects might be a startlingly alive figurative wooden cup; an iconic bronze head from 17th-century Benin; elephant tusks carved to evoke a vision of the entire world; imposing, nail-studded wooden power figures with faces that will break your heart. But however glad we are as museumgoers to see such striking and mysterious things, we are looking for something more. What, we ask, does it all mean?

Nearly all the objects in "Look Again" have made the short journey from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The Art Museum has almost no African art, having agreed long ago to leave the field to the Penn Museum. (The chief exceptions in this show are two Fang civilization figures from the Arensberg Collection, embodying the influence of African art on European modernism.)

But whereas both museums possess objects that would make sense displayed in either place, they are fundamentally different institutions. For an art museum, visual expression is paramount, but for an archaeological and anthropological museum like Penn's, the artifacts are, above all, evidence. Their purpose is to help people understand the cultures of other places and times.

Thus, the promise of this show is that we will see some of the Penn Museum's great collection of African art in the context of the Art Museum's collections of European, Asian, and American art. Kristina Van Dyke, a scholar of African art, is the guest diviner, who arranges the objects, then encourages us to make connections among them.

You should see this show because of the quality and power of the works on display. They are better lighted and less densely presented than is the case at Penn, so they are easier to see and scrutinize. Yet, I can't help feeling that the opportunity to see the work in a new light has been lost.

For many, African art is difficult to deal with because it comes from unfamiliar places and cultures, from a context of rituals and beliefs we don't understand. Still, perhaps because it is so strongly shaped by spirituality, belief, and desire, it transcends these barriers and touches the soul.

"What is there to see when you look at a work of art?" the first wall panel asks. "A surprising amount of information can be found just by looking at an object, from clues of how it was made to hints about meaning based on the imagery it depicts." Well, yes, of course. But first there has to be something about the work that moves you, that makes you care so much about the thing that you want to know more.

With its catechismlike format, the exhibition is constantly asking the viewer questions, then supplying answers that nudge the viewer to look again and again at the work. But somehow, we are pushed past the encounter with the work itself and asked to guess the date or why it was made.

For example, one of the most compelling groupings in the show is a wall of metal and wood Kota reliquary figures made by the Obamba culture in Gabon. These stylized figures with flattened faces and out-turned elbows protected bundles of the bones of important ancestors. Though they have a common form and subject, each is individual and engaging, some dignified, a few funny.

They are shown here, though, as an example of how technology can help explain art. Near the display is a table-size computer screen where all the Kota on display are shown in playing-card form, and visitors can try to see whether there are connections among the figures. What emerges is a dense, endlessly reconfiguring web. It is addictive and fun, but, like the rest of the exhibition, it is trying to make us into scholars when all we want to do is look and feel.

There may be as many as 21 million people in Lagos, Nigeria, though estimates vary. Clearly, it's a city full of problems, but also full of life, as we can see in photographs by the Nigerian photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi that appear in the show "Three Photographers/Six Cities," also part of "Creative Africa."

Akinbiyi, and Ananias Léki Dago from Ivory Coast, whose work is also in the show, come from the tradition of street photography, which arose in Europe and the Americas during a time of runaway urban growth almost as Africa has experienced in recent decades.

In Akinbiyi's Lagos pictures, the street seems to be pushing into the sea, as we see a cigarette seller, clad in a shirt with the names of American cities (New York, Manhattan, Miami, Baltimore, Dallas), walking along the beach, peddling his products. In nearly all the pictures, we see people trying to participate in a global culture that is messy, and perhaps not good, but nevertheless exciting.

Léki seeks out motifs that symbolize the place - as in his views of Nairobi, Kenya, whose population has gone from zero to three million since 1899. There, people live their lives in neighborhoods made entirely of corrugated sheet metal.

Meanwhile, Timbuktu, in Mali, has about 50,000 inhabitants, the same as it had five centuries ago, and the main material is mud. Seydou Camara turns his camera to this famously remote spot, once a seat of learning and now a site of violent political upheaval. He focuses on the city's ancient manuscripts, very beautiful but already deteriorating and now doubly threatened. Unlike the other two photographers in the show, he dwells not on change, but on the boldly geometric buildings and, above all, the written pages that remind us that, though it doesn't always feel that way, cities are where civilization comes from.