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Handcrafted, everyday beauty from Africa on display

Exhibition highlights personal items from BMA's collection

By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

9:43 PM EDT, October 16, 2011

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Beauty can be found even in the utilitarian.

A recently opened exhibit of African art at the Baltimore Museum of Art makes that point powerfully, with a varied array of elaborately handcrafted personal objects from across the continent — from hats, blankets and hairpins to weaving tools and jugs used to carry water and milk.

"Hand Held: Personal Arts from Africa" shows off more than 80 items from the museum's 2,000-piece collection, many of them never or rarely displayed before.

They highlight the museum's longtime focus on African art and help broaden the conventional understanding of it, said Nichole Bridges, associate curator for African art.

"When people think about African art, they think about masks and ritual sculpture — ceremonial objects," Bridges said. "The objects that are in the show are everyday."

So everyday, in fact, that a pair of decorated milk gourds on display still smell of milk, according to Bridges. Other items, such as wooden seats, ceremonial staffs and pipes, show the wear of a lifetime's use — or lifetimes' uses, as many were handed down from one generation to the next.

Artworks on display hail from nearly two dozen countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria.

The BMA's interest in African art dates to the mid-1930s, when it displayed a touring exhibit organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art, Bridges says. The BMA first put together its own African art exhibition in 1946 and built its collection over the years. A major addition occurred in 1954, with 125 items donated by Alan and Janet Wurtzburger.

One of the first item visitors encounter is one of the Wurtzburger gifts, a wooden neck rest used to keep elaborate hairstyles worn by the Luba people of central Africa from being ruined during repose. The object's base is an ornately carved figure of a woman sporting one of the hairdos the object was made to protect.

The exhibit is divided into two main groups: One contains items that proclaim the owner's individuality and the other contains objects used to care for and protect the community or family.

Many if not most of the individual items were crafted by artists for royalty or other powerful and wealthy people. A unifying characteristic, though, is the objects' "tactility" — they weren't just beautiful to behold but were also designed to be held, used or worn, Bridges said.

Some of Bridges' favorite objects in the exhibition are eight textiles adorning the walls, including a 35-foot-long ceremonial skirt worn by a Kuba man in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The sheer size of the checked raffia and cotton fabric, plus the variety of traded and indigenous materials used to make it, testify to the wealth of the wearer.

Another item, a deep indigo head scarf with splashes of color, displays the artistry in an everyday item of clothing worn by a Berber woman in Tunisia.

Rebecca Hohman, a fine arts major from Towson University who was taking notes while her parents browsed, found a large, ornately carved pipe particularly impressive.

"I think it's beautiful," she said of all the artwork, "especially because it's handmade."

The exhibition, which opened Sept. 25, occupies a pair of galleries adjoining the museum's permanent African collection. It runs through Feb. 5 and offers patrons a foretaste, Bridges said, of what the museum will be able to display in an expanded African art gallery once the renovation that began this year is complete in 2014.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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