WASHINGTON -- During the 20th century, African art developed a new face.
Although modern art has thrived on the African continent for the past 90 years through a blend of new styles and centuries of tradition, contemporary African art remains something of an enigma for most Americans.
"Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art," the latest exhibit to open at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, provides the first-ever comprehensive look at modern African art through more than 100 sculptures, paintings, photographs and mixed media artworks on loan from a wide range of artists, collectors and cultural institutions.
Divided into five main themes -- Traditional Art, New Functional Art, Urban Art, International Art and Past in the Present -- the exhibition begins by looking at what is probably the oldest continuous cultural link in African art: ritual masks.
Theatrical in nature, carved wooden masks often are worn during ceremonial or festive occasions. Arguably the most unique works on display are three rather unconventional items made by Ghanaian artist Kane Kwei.
Showing that the trip to the hereafter can be done in style, the artist specializes in creating elaborate coffins designed in the shape of animals, various foods and even automobiles. These versions of "func- tional art" take shape in the show as a 6-foot Mercedes-Benz coffin, a decidedly oversized mother hen and a cocoa-pod that looks like the overgrown outcome of a radiation experiment gone bad.
An ornate mask-headdress on view hails from the exotic and colorful world of the Ode-lay social scene. Ode-lay is a form of urban art and entertainment that first appeared in Sierra Leone in 1977, and provided a setting where young adults could gather to drink and enjoy vibrant costumed performers.
African painters are really story tellers, providing a kind of immediate visual narration on everything from consumerism to battling mosquitoes.
Works by Zairian artists chronicle, in vivid imagery, life under and after colonial rule. Between 1885 and 1960, Belgium did not always administer its claim over the Congo (now Zaire) with a velvet glove.
Fear stalks a village in the form of two men dressed in the dark and stiff attire of the secret police in a work entitled "Simba Bulaya" ("The Lion of Europe").
While many African artists are self-taught, the display also showcases well-trained and educated painters and sculptors. Many of the contemporary abstract works display a rich understanding of color and composition not too unlike counterparts in Europe or America.
The exhibit concludes with a return to tradition, as visitors are presented with a display of sculpture and mask forms that no longer are popular in African lands, yet underscore the foundations of a cultural identity at the heart of a continent's creative talents.