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Exhibition at Columbia museum shows African influence on art


Tucked away on the second floor of Oakland Mansion, the two rooms that make up the African Art Museum of Maryland are elegant, exotic and small.

A traditional Ibibio wood carving of a girl's head with a long, graceful neck, which might have been an ornament for a staff, sits in a glass case next to a beaded purse. The girl's face is stained earth red for beauty; her eyes are cowrie shells. Her lips, barely smiling, convey an inner life.

In the second room, the branches of a truncated pear tree form heads of spirits and the bodies of women holding babies. The sculpture, by Leah Taylor of Columbia, is titled "Why Must We Raise The Children Alone?"

"African Expressions in American Art," a new exhibition at the museum, includes traditional African art and crafts, paintings and prints by contemporary African artist Gabriel Sunday Tenabe, and the work of Maryland artists influenced by African styles, themes or techniques.

In highlighting the accomplishments of African-American and other artists, the show creates a subtle interplay between the rootedness and power of tribal art and a modern American search for identity, history and community.

Some of the modern pieces could almost be mistaken for traditional work. John Beckley's "B. B. Queen," a concave cast bronze mask with shoestring hair, hangs in a frame on the wall.

Other masklike faces on small pedestals stand, like icons or meditative presences, in glass cases.

"The masks are mine," Beckley says, "so I use idioms from everywhere. It's kind of like jazz -- I use a little bit of this and a little bit of that."

Clarence Page's copper bas-relief face, "Mount Vernon Premonition," echoes the geometric lines of traditional Dan masks from Liberia, but its eyes are made of two quarters. Inside, the terrified pupils are tiny portraits of George Washington.

Taylor's tree spirits and figures echo the serene face of the young Nigerian girl in the glass case, the spirits' painted features are jagged, not round.

The neck of one is studded with dark berries; a tuft of the artist's own dark, curly hair is glued to its head.

Raffia, beads, shells, wood, and deer and turkey bones decorate the sculpture and an installation by Taylor that stands nearby.

Her work reflects "a journey of mine as an African and Native American finding out who I am spiritually and my culture, she says.

Michael A. Brown's bronze warrior plays an elephant-tusk horn intricately carved with the history of the African-American journey from the middle passage to emancipation.

European traditions

Titled "The Call of Freedom," the figure is cast in looser, more naturalistic forms drawn from the traditions of European art.

Crouched on a tall rock, the figure rotates on its pedestal to produce a low sound like a horn.

"I'm adding a Western perspective," Brown says. "I'm riding on the shirttails of those masters that went before me, and, hopefully, I'll do a good job on my leg of the run."

Tenabe's urbane paintings present another accommodation between cultures -- clashing patterns play against a patchwork of semi-abstract shapes.

Tenabe, who comes from Nigeria, is professor of art at Morgan State University and director of the university's art museum.

L The exhibition, which opened Sunday, will run until Dec. 30.

It was organized at the invitation of Blackside Inc. and the Consortium of African and African American Museums of Maryland as part of a project, "I'll Make Me a World," produced by Blackside in association with Thirteen/WNET.

PBS series included

"I'll Make Me a World" will include a PBS television series celebrating the achievements of African-American writers, musicians, performers and visual artists. It will be shown Feb. 1, 2 and 3.

The African Art Museum of Maryland, at 5430 Vantage Point Road in Columbia, was founded by African art historian Doris Ligon in 1980. It is one of three in the United States devoted to African art.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $2; $1 for seniors and children younger than 12. Members get in free.

Information: 410-730-7105.

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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