Saturday, March 23, 2013

At The Met: African Art, New York and the Avant-Garde

I'm almost done with the brilliant, epic, well-researched work Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern by Jayna Brown. It has sent me careening into the turn of the century -- the sights, the sounds, all of the ephemera that surrounds it -- and has me rethinking my world as a black female performer and my place in the entertainment industry.  Our collective history as black performers has been underrreported and grossly underrepresented so consistently and for so long, it was somewhat cathartic to finally learn the truth: we were a powerful influence all over the world -- as performers, as dancers, as vocalists, as bandleaders, as musicians.  We were a revolutionary force to be reckoned with. We still are.

Now that so much of the book has dovetailed so thoroughly with what I already know about the zeitgeist of those times and the performers who were relentless in pursuit of greatness, I'm picking up more pieces to the puzzle as I go along. Not surprisingly, I found quite a few of them at The Met in an exhibit called African Art, New York and the Avant-Garde

It's a small exhibit, tucked away somewhere in the depths of the Pre-Columbian section on The Met's first floor, and it's filled with paintings, photographs, programs and such, collected by wealthy patrons of the arts in the 1920s. It's well worth seeing.  There are quite a lot of beautiful African sculptures. How they got those artifacts from Africa remains a mystery.  It gives one reason to pause and wonder what other priceless items they took.  What's especially important to note is that this art was essential in defining and informing what we now know of as a modern aesthetic.

Here's one of my favorites -- probably because the face is so specific.  It was among the first African works exhibited in an art gallery.  (Who is it -- someone's wife or aunt, perhaps?) I love the well-groomed hair and bun, too. The style looks so. Well. Modern. Exactly like something I'd see on the street in Bed-Stuy or Harlem now.

The Met's website states: By 1914, it had been exhibited at Robert Coady’s Washington Square Gallery in New York. The head therefore became the first African artifact displayed in New York alongside art by modern masters such as Juan Gris and Henri Rousseau.

Displayed alongside modern masters, huh.  To the artists, writers and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance, this was a very important acknowledgement that was happening at a moment in our history when we were beginning to understand our history and our connection to Africa. Clearly, this meant that African art was just as good as European art -- and by extension, so were we.

(Freestanding wood sculpture head from the Fang peoples in Gabon.)

They did much more than simply display the African sculptures they "found". They used them as a kind of creative springboard to explore new abstract ideas and shape them into a modern framework. For example, Picasso's African Period and the subsequent creation of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon -- the first Cubist painting and an important step toward modern art -- was inspired by sculptures from the Fang people.

In one especially disturbing photograph, we see a patron's living room. It is filled to the hilt with priceless works of art. There were so many pieces that I recognized, I couldn't stop gasping.  Where did they get that art?

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