Baltimore Museum of Art opens renovated African and Asian galleries

African and Asian art at the BMA like you've never seen it before

They seem to breathe, these 12 20th-century African masks, and to look at us with the same bold curiosity with which we examine them.

A few have birds nesting in their wooden and metal hair. Two others rise above long tangles of raffia. One artist even etched a pair of spectacles onto her mask.

Despite the charming touches, the masks are undeniably powerful and even frightening — as befits their role in a controversial female initiation ritual that has traditionally involved genital mutilation.

Placed on posts and arrayed before a dramatic, royal blue wall, the grouping is one of the stop-in-your-tracks moments in the Baltimore Museum of Art's newly renovated galleries for its African and Asian collections.

"These galleries have never looked better than they look right now," museum director Doreen Bolger says.

"In spite of the recession, we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams in making our museum more accessible to visitors and in displaying our artworks in a way that encourages transformative experiences."

The new galleries are the most recent phase of an ambitious, $28 million, multiyear refurbishing. The project included the 2012 transformation of the Contemporary Wing, and the reopening in November of the American Wing and the historic entrance. Still to come is a new center for learning and creativity that will debut this fall.

The public will get its first look at the redesigned African and Asian galleries Sunday, when the first of two free daylong community celebrations will be held. Sunday's African art festival will have live music and dancing, storytelling, a demonstration of traditional Zulu beading, and a mask-making workshop.

The Asian arts festival will be held June 28 and will include a calligraphy demonstration, puppet-making, a manga-drawing workshop and a tai chi class.

Between activities, museum visitors will encounter twice as many African and Asian artworks on display as there were when those galleries closed for renovation three years ago.

Bolger describes the museum's 2,100-object holdings in African art, which date to 1954, as "one of the earliest and most important African art collections in the United States."

Eighty-two African headdresses, statues and jewelry — or more than double the 36 artworks displayed previously — occupy 4,000 feet of gallery space. That's in addition to the 15 artworks loaned to the museum by a Washington-area couple and temporarily displayed in an adjoining exhibit on the art of eastern Nigeria.

"Several of the masks and figurative sculptures are recognized internationally as the best of their type," Bolger says.

The African galleries connect to the Asian galleries, and the juxtaposition creates an interesting contrast. Because nearly all of the African artworks date from the late 19th or 20th centuries, they provide a focused look at the creative output of nearly two dozen nations during a relatively narrow slice of history.

In comparison, the museum's 1,200-object Asian collection specializes in the glazed ceramics from primarily one country, but over a very long period.

From the Baltimore museum's first days, when the attention of the international art scene centered on artworks created in the Western Hemisphere, "this museum has always looked beyond the borders of America and Europe," says Frances Klapthor, the museum's associate curator of Asian art.

The 157 bottles, brush washers and vases — more than twice the 73 objects on view before — provide a sweeping look at how that art form progressed in China over more than four millennia. The oldest item in the Asian collection is a simple clay vessel with a black diamond design crafted in 2500 B.C. The most recent is a pair of elegantly minimalist tea bowls that were fired in 2010.

When architect Dan Carter first examined the display of 150 tiny, exquisite African brass weights once used to measure out gold dust and the lovingly detailed Chinese sculpture of a standing horse with a raised tail from the second century B.C., he knew that the museum's African and Asian collections deserved a better showcase than they were receiving.

"There was a jumble of materials that didn't quite go together and that looked dated," recalls Carter, a senior associate with the architectural firm Ziger/Snead.

The firm took cues from the building's original architect, John Russell Pope, whom Carter describes as "a modern classicist who was subtle, very refined and who made the most of his materials and proportions."

Now, most objects are enclosed in cases that can be viewed from three or four sides — a seemingly simple change that considerably enriches the viewing experience.

Other improvements — such as moving a staircase from one side of the room to the other to let in more daylight, raising the ceilings and installing new, state-of-the-art lighting — have resulted in a more airy, open environment.

"We took the East Lobby down to the studs," Carter says. "We reorganized the galleries to create relationships that draw visitors deeper into the space."

Klapthor and Kathryn Gunsch, the museum's former associate curator for African art, have grouped artworks together in a manner that that gives visitors a sense of how long-dead people used these objects in their daily lives.

For example, visitors will discover that the objects on the wall of masks were created by the secret Sande society and that they represent the only wooden masks in Africa worn by female performers.

"When a preteen girl sees the perfectly coiffed hair, smooth skin, and lustrous sheen of Sande society masks in her village, she knows it is her turn to become a woman," the wall text reads. The girls are taken to a camp in the forest, where, the wall text says, they learn "proper comportment, songs, and dances, as well as information on sexual education and family relationships."

At the end of their two-month sequestration, the girls are accompanied back to town by female elders wearing the masks and costumes made of black cloth and raffia. The girls' return to the community is celebrated with several days of feasts, musical performances and dances featuring the masked and costumed women celebrating the virtues of ideal womanhood.

Sande initiation rites have frequently included the widely condemned practice of female circumcision, though nowhere is that mentioned in the installation.

According to museum spokeswoman Anne Mannix-Brown: "The curator chose to focus on the visual expression of the Sande society and the aesthetic value of the masks themselves rather than one aspect of the rite of passage for some members."

She writes in an email that museum docents "are prepared to have a dialogue about this issue if there are any questions from visitors."

In the nearby Asian galleries, the arrangement of objects also tells a coming-of-age story aimed at young girls, though without the troubling undertones.

At one end of the gallery, a larger-than-life,15th-century bronze statue of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, occupies pride of place in her own brick-red alcove.

Nearby is a white iPad preloaded with a 20-page comic book called "The Precious Scroll of Incense Mountain." The comic tells the story of the trials of the Princess Miaoshan, her difficult journey to divinity and her continuing efforts to ease human suffering. A paper version of the graphic novel, which was created for the Baltimore museum by a Toronto* artist, is for sale in the museum bookstore.

The pairing doesn't merely link modern technology to a 600-year-old statue. It also implicitly elevates a beloved part of popular culture to the status of art, and sends a message to young graphic novel fans that the museum is taking them, and their favorite pastimes, seriously.

Adolescent girls who themselves are on the verge of goddesshood can read a few pages of the comic, then stop to gaze at the statue. Back and forth they go, reading and looking and absorbing, until the transformation is complete.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

The Baltimore Museum of Art's renovated African and Asian collections open Sunday, along with a daylong African art celebration from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Asian art celebration will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on June 28. Free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org

* This story has been changed to reflect the city where the artist who created the comic book is based.

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