It can’t be seen in the carved, wooden mask depicting a squashed human face. It isn’t evident in the contemporary painting that presents a woman in a brightly colored robe with wild criss-cross brushstrokes.
A true image of African art can only be seen by looking at the two works side by side.
At least, this is the idea presented in the latest exhibit at the Handwerker Gallery, “Voices: Truth, Identity and Art from Africa,” which opened March 1.
The collection includes traditional and contemporary pieces made by artists from Africa and other people of African heritage to show the variety of work that has been both created and preserved.
Though the art does not represent all African countries or people, it is meant to be a truthful look at African culture and the evolution of the culture’s work. The exhibit highlights themes including history; myth, religion and ritual; tradition and innovation; national identity, ethnicity and nature; and misconceptions.
The exhibit was curated by students in the class “Exhibition Seminar,” which Cheryl Kramer, associate professor of art history and director of the Handwerker Gallery, taught last semester. Students chose the show’s theme and objects and wrote the catalogue for the show.
The actualization of the exhibit, though, was done in the newly created class “Exhibition, Education and Outreach,” also taught by Kramer. These students transported the pieces, hung them and organized three lectures to be presented at the gallery. Members of the class will also present the exhibit at the college’s James J. Whalen Academic Symposium on April 11 and the Museums in Conversation Conference from April 22 to 24 in Albany, N.Y.
Kramer said she added the second class because the exhibit couldn’t be put together well by only one course. “Exhibition, Education and Outreach” also gave more students the opportunity for experiential learning.
“It’s not something to be done in one semester,” she said. “You cannot curate, write a catalogue and mount it in the same semester, so this gave us a different perspective on the exhibition.”
The 58 objects in the exhibit are selections from local residents Aimee and Johannes Lehmann’s collection. Johannes Lehmann, an associate professor of crop and soil sciences at Cornell University, has been collecting the work in the show during the past 20 years. He said most of the pieces he discovered through happenstance.
“Sometimes it’s just by chance,” he said. “You’ll walk along somewhere, and you see an announcement, like this show, and say this artist is really good and look for more art from that artist.”
Lehmann’s interests in African art first grew after he lived in Togo for six months and then in Kenya for three years while doing research. Since then, he has been keeping an eye out for contemporary art and traditional artifacts from
African countries in galleries and different exhibits all over Europe and the U.S.
Lehmann said what intrigues him about African art is not only the stories it tells, but also the changes in art these artists have made since he has been collecting.
“Art from artists that come from Africa have, over the past two, three decades, fully absorbed international formalism and have something to say,” he said. “They have a lot to say. And they’re extremely successful in telling their story and producing engaged and exciting contemporary art.”
Lehmann said changes in contemporary African art make it almost indistinguishable from work created in India and Europe. He specifically noted a piece by Nigerian artist Marcia Kure titled “011 from Vogue series.”
The piece is a mix of tans and earthy browns making up the profile of a person’s body. Around the straight-standing figure is a lima bean shape resembling the opening of a voluminous dress. Where the head of the human should be, however, is a black hood sharply arching down, like the beak of a bird.
Junior Victoria Rice said she was pleased with the topic of the exhibit when she entered the class because it brings a new perspective to the area.
“African art is something that we don’t really see, just because we’re in central New York, so bringing that culture onto our campus is a really nice thing.” she said. “And since it’s ancient and contemporary African art, there is a lot of range, but then there is a lot of unity between the modern and the ancient.”
Senior Kelly McKenna, also a member of the class, noted the same modern styles with traditional influences in the exhibit, citing Kure’s “Woman Giving Birth.”
The center of the painting holds the bleach-white shape of a woman, her body shape geometric and abstract. Nothing is distinguishable on her body, except her face, with her mouth wide open and eyes closed, framed with a heart, a similar look to the traditional masks and sculptures that surround the painting. From between the straight-line “legs” is a little gray semicircle. The rest of the painting is a mix of dark brown shapes with a few graphite lines.
“It’s using a modern style of geometric shapes with flat spaces, but you can see the best image that’s taken from tradition. ‘Woman Giving Birth’ is a symbol that is never-ending,” McKenna said. “It ties in to the humanity of how people have always been the same.”
Kramer said the students’ energy is what made this show so strong.
“Students in the second class are really able to, with great enthusiasm, take those ideas and realize them over the course of the semester,” she said. “So I think it gives it a nice influx of energy and enthusiasm.”