The Baltimore Museum of Art houses a stellar collection of African art that includes more than 2,000 pieces, most dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Yet a visitor encountering these works in the museum today may be forgiven for experiencing a certain amount of confusion. The African objects share a gallery with those of other "primitive" cultures -- Native American, Oceanic, Asian and Pre-Columbian, for example -- but it's not clear what the relationship between them is supposed to be or how it should be interpreted.
That may change, however, now that Karen Milbourne, the BMA's new curator of African art, is planning a major reinstallation of the African collection, tentatively scheduled for 2007.
Milbourne, who has conducted extensive field work in Africa as well as taught the history of African art, says she envisions a restructuring of the African galleries that emphasizes the artworks' meaning for the people who created them rather than the more usual chronological or geographical treatments.
"Historically, museums have followed a geographic approach that emphasizes stylistic differences," Milbourne says. "I thought we should go with a series of broad themes -- for example, royalty, education, politics and religion.
"That would also allow us to present the objects' provenance -- how they traveled from Africa to the BMA, as well as their relationship to contemporary art practices in Africa and the way our objects have accumulated new meanings as time passes," Milbourne says.
The goal of the project is to make the art more accessible to contemporary audiences. It's also a way for the museum to explore new ways of answering fundamental questions about African art.
How, for example, does one go about looking at African art? The issue is more complicated than it may seem at first, not only because African art is incredibly diverse -- representing 53 countries and nearly 30,000 years of history -- but also because traditionally African art has been viewed almost exclusively through the prism of European modernism.
When people think of African art they are apt to imagine ceremonial masks, or perhaps the bright geometries of African textiles and pottery. But there is much more to the tradition of African art than these familiar examples.
In fact, the tremendous diversity of works produced by African artists makes it difficult even for scholars to agree on a single definition of African art.
Does it, for example, include the art of ancient Egypt as well as the countries of sub-Saharan Africa? What about the paleolithic rock paintings of South Africa, or contemporary photography from Nigeria? Do works produced by diaspora artists in the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe qualify as African art? All these questions remain unanswered.
Most museums, Milbourne says, arbitrarily limit their African art acquisitions to works created before 1940, on the assumption that after that the influence of industrialization, urbanization and commercial pressures became the main impetus for art-making in Africa.
But the production of artworks for religious and ceremonial use has persisted in Africa to the present. One can hardly conceive of a Western art museum excluding virtually everything from the past six decades as somehow "inauthentic," though in many museums that remains the case with African art.
Spain's Pablo Picasso and other early modernists were greatly influenced by the exotic forms of African masks, which they incorporated into their own works as symbols of the unconscious mind. European modernism "aestheticized" African art -- that is, it made its forms visible for the first time as art rather than as artifact. But its very emphasis on the formal qualities of art precluded an appreciation of the objects' meaning for the people who created them.
(Picasso boasted he didn't need to know anything about African masks except how they looked. To him the cultural meaning of the masks -- as expressions of religious, political or moral ideas -- was irrelevant.)
Yet aesthetics may have been the least part of the meaning of African artworks for the people who used them.
African masks, for example, were meant to be viewed not as static sculpture but rather as elements in a complex ritual ceremony that included dance, costume, music and theater.
Without some knowledge of these broader meanings, the ability to appreciate the achievement of African artists is severely limited. Take, for example, the magnificent D'mba mask made by the Baga people of Guinea-Conakry on the western coast of Africa that is one of the jewels of the BMA's collection.
This work represents an ideal of female beauty -- and power -- that its audience would have recognized immediately, though in form it is quite foreign to Western art. Yet it is as much an expression of an ideal type as a Venus by the ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles or an angel by the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. Or take the rooftop figures created by the Pende artist Kaseya Tambwe Makumbi of southwestern Congo that depict a mother and child who outwardly resemble a Christian "Madonna and Child."
In this case, the work's meaning has nothing to do with Raphael's religious treatment of the motif. Rather, it would have decorated the rooftop of a Pende leader's home to proclaim his political authority and honor the health and fertility his rule brought to the land and its people.
Today we cannot so easily distinguish the similarities or differences between European and African art because, as Milbourne says, Africa is still "a foil for our own anxieties," a projection of the Western imagination refracted through the history of the Atlantic slave trade and the legacy of racism it spawned.
That is the legacy Milbourne's planned reinstallation of the collection hopes to overcome, at least in part.
"The idea of Africa has for centuries been fuel for the ideas of Europeans, and vastly oversimplified to suit their needs," Milbourne says. "We want to show Africa as a more contemporary space, with all its diversity and complexity and rich artistic traditions."