Friday, 9 April 2010

More Africa at the British Museum

 The Ife Bronzes at the Kingdom of Ife exhibition (read here and here) is fantastic - get to it, even if you don't normally do visual art. It's important because it shows a completely different way of thinking about art history and cultures. It inspired my friend who loves Africa to take me to the regular British Museum African gallery.

Africa is a huge place with many completely different cultures, so squeezing its art into one small gallery is a bit frustrating. Imagine if all European art, from Lapland to the Azores, from Iceland to Turkey, from prehistory to the present was all crammed together on one room. But that in itself shows how little the west understands non-western cultures.

Because Africa is so diverse, in theory it's not a bad idea to arrange the gallery on themes like textiles, woodwork, pottery etc, so you can see the range of different styles.  But it's a bit like a jumble sale. This exquisite ivory piece depicts a mother goddess. It was made in the great empire of Benin 500 years ago. photo credit It's odd to see her several feet from a mass-produced modern T shirt.

It's good to see "modern" nonetheless, because it shows that art thrives in modern cultures too. One striking exhibit is a chair made from guns. After the war in Mozambique ended, people were encouraged to exchange their guns for farm tools - swords into ploughshares. Because Africa isn't wealthy, people reuse things in inventive ways. So there's a "tree" made of metal and a video of how it came to be made. Once the Museum of Mankind (now sadly defunct) did a whole exhibition of African "recycling" showing how creative ordinary  people can be.

But it is frustrating if you want to find out more about the amazing wall of bronze plaques, each depicting vivid scenes.  They were obviously important to the people who made them as they're crafted with great skill and detail. There are about 1000 of them, and apparently they can be read as a saga, rather like an infinitely more sophisticated version of the Bayeux Tapestry. photo credit   Yet they're a mystery as no-one knows how to decipher their meaning. (Click on the photos to enlarge)

That's the paradox about museums. Because the public sees them as tourist attractions, they have to cater for everyone, and for mass taste, so they can't really do comprehensive or penetrating. Not long ago there was a protest about moving the V&A's musical instruments to the specialist Horniman Museum. While I've no time for the V&A's fad for trendiness, the point of museums is that they exist to protect the objects in their collections. Museums exist for research, conservation and education. What's on display is only ever the tiniest fragment of what exists. We may not know "now" what things are, but if they're not cared for they won't be around for someone to interpret in the future. And displays change all the time, which is why it's good to revisit museums regularly, not simply as tourists.

Thirty years ago I visited a huge exhibition about Benin at the Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Nothing like it had been seen on that scale in the US before. It was magnificent, because Benin was magnificent. A whole bunch of schoolkids were being shown round. They came in antsy and fidgetty, because that museum wasn't the kind of place kids from the slums hang out.  Luckily, they had a good curator.  He explained what Benin was, and how much respect it was due. The kids were wonderstruck, their eyes wide  with amazement.  They walked into that exhibition as punks, but they walked out confident and happy.  Benin taught them that African culture and history is something we all can be proud of.

It's relevant for classical music, too. All this fuss about making it "accessible" implies that people are incapable of dealing with complex things. Those SF ghetto kids went to a serious, non-dumbe-down exhibition, and had no problem getting what it meant.

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