As a former colony of France, now an independent nation whose official language is French, the West African nation of Senegal has long ties to Europe and one should not be surprised to see a European influence in its contemporary art.
One does, in a current show of seven Senegalese artists at the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center. But the more successful of these artists use elements of what can be interpreted as European style in order to deal with deeper concerns. When style itself comes more to the fore, as it does with other artists here, the work comes off as less essential and more superficial.
In Mamadou Fall Dabo's paintings, we have shallow, indeterminate spaces, simplified forms, a vertical layering of space on the canvas rather than realistic perspective. But his work isn't about such concerns. It's about the mysteries of the unseen world ("Communicating With the Spirits"), the ordered ebullience of a wedding ("The Marriage"), the importance of hope ("Peace"). Dabo's works are straightforward, strongly rendered and moving.
Viye Diba's paintings combine a flat, textured ground of essentially one color, on which are placed figures in groups suggesting both asymmetrical pattern and hierarchical order. They function as symbolic markings such as wall paintings or hieroglyphics, as pure abstract composition such as one would find on a textile, and as a visual form reminiscent of musical notation. As such, these works reveal a complex blending of modern and traditional art strains.
The small paintings of Ibrahima Kebe are almost naive in their simplicity of image as well as their simplified renderings, and they have an affecting charm.
The large face of "The Messenger" has about it a touching openness. These are perhaps the least sophisticated paintings here, but they do get through.
Moussa Tine's images, on the other hand, of a "Centaur," an "Aquatic Figure," a "Harnessed Horse," appear to be influenced by, and trying to build a personal visual language out of, surrealism. But it doesn't work too well, resulting in something closer to decorative stylization. Jean Marie Sagna achieves a kind of symbolism in a shape that repeats itself from canvas to canvas, but the meaning of these works remains obscure.
The show came about through the sister cities relationship between Prince George's County and Ziguinchor in Senegal. It provides an all too rare glimpse of contemporary African painting; more would be welcome.
The show continues through May 26 at the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center, 12826 Laurel-Bowie Road. Today at noon there will be a luncheon/lecture with Andrew Habermacher, chairman of the department of anthropology, political science and sociology at Prince George's Community College. He will speak on "People and Cultures of Senegal." Admission is free, but reservations are required. Call (410) 792-0664.