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Everything Is Illuminated
Exhibit Looks At Role Of Light In African Art From Day To Night And In Between
ACT LIKE YOU KNOW: Jimoh Buraimoh's "Three Wise Men."

ACT LIKE YOU KNOW: Jimoh Buraimoh's "Three Wise Men."

FIGURE STUDY: A Mbulu-Ngulu reliquiry figure from Gabon.

FIGURE STUDY: A Mbulu-Ngulu reliquiry figure from Gabon.

Meditations on African Art: Light

Everyone fortunate enough to have visited Africa knows that it is a place of tremendous metaphysical power. Its intense object culture and the supporting ritual ceremonies, parables, and performances continue to endow those objects with mysterious, immortal vitality. We Westerners can only scratch the surface of what many of Africa's introspective artifacts indicate to their users.

Karen Milbourne, the Baltimore Museum of Art's associate curator of African art, has planned a panoramic series of exhibitions titled Meditations on African Art to invite BMA visitors into her subject. Through a three-part themed presentation beginning with "Light"--subsequently followed by "Pattern" and "Color"--her revolving installations of the BMA's African art collection indoctrinate through a conscientious method of simulated pageantry.

You enter the current exhibition through a familiar contemporary door--video--and meet Theo Eshetu waiting your presence in a dimmed theatre. Eshetu, an Ethiopian artist associated with Fluxus, has three remarkable film installations to transport visitors to his luminous, untamed world. In "Meditation-Light," a time-coded, segmented series of repeated rushing images of Africa's natural beauty and bustling marketplaces, you soar through a glowing slot in the wall and into his motherland's wildly beating heart. His other installation, "Brave New World," is a teasing work of smoke and mirrors on African identity, although its bewitching perfection is compromised a bit by its awkward framing. Eshetu frames his video in pseudo French-classical gold-leaf molding, which doesn't feel like an appropriate aesthetic remark in this fundamentally authentic exhibition. It only proves the devil is always somewhere in the details.

Beyond this theater, curator Milbourne leads you back in time, dividing the selected artifacts into the two rooms that explore the significance of light. Her thesis is that some African ritual objects were designed for use in equatorial "Daylight" while others were intended to captivate the heightened imagination of "Twilight." Mediating between the two environments is a central hall of "Spiritual Light."

Reflective and light-emanating surfaces have long been used to ward off evils and express the divine. That idea is particularly evident in the Spiritual Light space, where, in addition to spiritually illuminated objects, are more familiar works demonstrating how the medium is the message. Here a 19th-century illustrated Ethiopian prayer book, embellished with polychrome and gold leaf, signifies Christian spirituality. A 20th-century Quran container glistens with chased silver and copper fretwork. "Three Wise Men," a contemporary Picasso-esque bead painting by Yoruban artist Jimoh Buraimoh, and an elaborate, glittering, beaded Shango priest vest invite the supernatural into their re-creations.

Nkisi, or "power figures"--the fierce fetish figures with metal shards and nails forced into them--are fearsome enough observed through secured and brightly lit plexiglass. In a darkened Twilight gallery with just enough track lighting to imitate a full moon, the Nkisi rise from semi-inert secrecy and their accentuated metal points and shadowy crevasses suggest visual utterances from the iron god, Ogun. In the dimness, shimmering mica bellies, made pregnant with potent herbal mixtures by village diviners, ask for protection from malady or unease. A Bamana cast-iron oil lamp is formed to cast hypothetical flames up onto its extended appendages. An otherworldly Yoruba path-clearer mask, such as the one on view, was designed to carve a passage between mortal and immortal spheres with its sharp, erect ears.

Across the hall, presented in the effulgence of a halogen sun, are the ritual objects representing Daylight. Gold-leaf Asante and Ghanaian spokesmen staffs encourage you to envision daytime gatherings of community elders rather then imagine such as evening events. No excess of sunlight can subjugate or override gold leaf; it merely aggravates its power. While semiprecious metals may enliven in the dusk, gold maintains its earthborn solar supremacy, transferring this authority to its owners and users, and a spokesman, taking the radiant staff and standing in the revealing light of day, would convey transparency, trust, and truth.

Among the other Daylight items in the show are performance accoutrements, such as dance masks and leg bands, recalling the transforming spectacle of humans who summon mythology into their mortal being and breathe continuity into their living stories. A marvelous Bamana warrior's tunic from the BMA's holdings, one of the most appealing I've encountered, is laden with gre-gre, or charms, protected front and rear. Fetish power in African culture is hierarchical. If one dons a warrior tunic in preparation to defend or subjugate an opponent--who also wears and carries fetish charms--his gre-gre are attached to assure his success. They are to the assailant spirits what a spear is to the body. Sewn-on mica or mirror bits reflect evil and fear back to the rival; pouches of herbs, or the hair, bones, or nails of a strong animal or a fierce warrior, or even a loved one, function to overwhelm the force of the opponent's fetishes. And, lest we forget, Roman Catholic churches honor this same tradition, placing a small fragment of a saint in a reliquary to bless and empower the structure and those who worship in it, or providing their faithful with scapulars--prayer pouches to wear around the neck.



Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper