Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Exoticism in Reverse: Europeans Through African Eyes

A mask of a Portuguese man from Mozambique.

The Detroit Institute of Art is currently running an exhibition called "Through African Eyes" which showcases artistic representations of Europeans by Africans as an exotic figure.  The show’s curator, Nii Quarcoopome, who leads the Department of Africa, Oceania and Indigenous Americas at the institute argues that, although some Africans had been encountering Arab traders for centuries, the sudden arrival of Portuguese sailors on the West African coast around 1450 caused a sensation.

A carving by the Yoruba artist Thomas Ona Odulate of a European couple walking a dog.
With their pale skin, the visitors fit an existing visual model for supernatural beings. That they came by sea, the realm of spirits and of the dead, reinforced this identity. That they tended to disappear quickly, stay away for long periods and then rematerialize further enhanced their mystique.

And even after the initial mystification subsided, Europeans remained at least as exotic to Africans as Africans were to them. For one thing, the Portuguese and their successors were a cornucopian source of materials and goods — metal, silk, furniture, clothing — which they exchanged for African gold and ivory. And the novelties they introduced were culture-altering.

European guns, once in African hands, drastically altered the dynamics of ethnic warfare. More prosaic objects changed elite fashion. European wood-joinery furniture was all the rage: cover a plain old armchair with African beaded fabric, and you had a royal throne.

Eyeglasses, which sharpened vision, became power items. A pair of glasses in the show, cast in gold by a 20th-century Ghanaian artist, with wire mesh in place of lenses, was an essential component of a chief’s regalia. They had no optical function, but as symbols of political acuity and cosmopolitan taste, their magnification value was great.

A gold pair of spectacles by a 20th Century Ghanaian artist.

....Such works were often consciously double-edged, designed for dual clientele. A 20th-century doll-like carving by the Yoruba artist Thomas Ona Odulate of a European couple, arms around each other and walking a dog, broadcast satirical messages that the European buyers would likely miss. In Nigeria the couple’s affectionate gesture was unacceptable public behavior; keeping a dog, an animal reserved for practical use in much of Africa, as a pet was scorned as a foolish Western custom.

Certain politically infused forms of art, like dance-mask portraits, were usually pitched to a specifically African audience. An early-20th-century Nigerian mask depicting a white colonial officer is an example: with his scuzzy moustache, too-small pith helmet and apoplectic flush, this is a broad-strokes sendup. That the mask is based on a type usually used to portray women adds an extra dig.

A mask of a White colonial officer from Nigeria.

Peoples in or aroud Detroit, plse checkout this exhibition. Its on from now till August.
Here's the link.
Fingers crossed it comes to my part of the world sooooon!

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