Wallach Gallery. Figures of Makonde men, around 1970-80, one carrying a boy and a suitcase, the other a water pipe and a spear.
via NYTimes, Art In Review [additional linkage provided by RGL]:
A Century of Makonde Masquerade in Mozambique
By HOLLAND COTTER
Published: November 2, 2007
Through Dec. 8
Goodbye to timeless Africa, darkest Africa, out-of-Africa and the "primitive" Africa that made Western Modernism sexy — to all the blinding stereotypes that shape the way Africa continues to be viewed internationally. Such farewells form the very basis of African art history as a progressive discipline today. And they clearly underlie exhibitions like this one, organized by Alexander Ives Bortolot, a lecturer in African art history at Dartmouth College and a Columbia University doctoral candidate.
Art from Mozambique, and East Africa in general, is scantily represented in public collections, and the art of the Makonde people has been little studied in recent years. So Mr. Bortolot is filling a scholarly need. And he approaches his subject in an interesting way, not through objects per se, but through the masked performance tradition called mapiko in which they play an integral role.
The show begins with 19th- and early-20th-century sculptures that suggest the roots of the masquerades performed by masked and costumed Makonde men — participation by women was forbidden — who assumed the personas of ancestral spirits who protected and preserved order in the community. Beginning in the 1920s, its spiritual utility diminished, but its role as inventive social commentary increased. When a socialist government came to power after independence in 1964, the masquerade became a vehicle for a new ethic of self-reliance and social equality. Women began participating and created masquerades of their own.
Now, after a protracted civil war and the establishment of multiparty democracy, the mapiko tradition is thriving in freestyle mode. Some performers present it as pure entertainment, others as social critique, still others as a way to restore old spiritual meanings. In every case this is a transformative art at the center of society, not a luxury item at its fringes. It encompasses ideas of repetition and change, and Western art can learn from it.
Mr. Bortolot captures all of this thrillingly. And Wallach, in presenting the show, does exactly what a university gallery should so. It showcases fresh research; fleshes out that research with marvelous and unfamiliar objects; and distills it in a catalog of nuanced clarity, written by the curator. Congratulations all around.