- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

Neon green and red-ocher walls envelop the extraordinary exhibition “African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Simulated water runs through several of the wall panels in the exhibit, which reflects sub-Saharan peoples’ love of water and fertility themes, and a see-through screen of anthropomorphic masks seems to float over a bed of river stones.

The exhibit unveils 88 of the 525 works — mainly dating from the 19th into the early 20th century — given by New York real estate developers Paul and Ruth Tishman in 1984 to the Walt Disney Co. (now a subsidiary of the Walt Disney World Co.). Many are large-scale and irresistible.

“They were evangelical about the public seeing their art,” exhibit curator Bryna Freyer says of the Tishmans, who were bold and prolific collectors. (“How does one fall in love?” Mr. Tishman once replied when queried about his passion for African art.)

In 1984, he bequeathed the visionary collection to the Walt Disney Co. for a planned African art pavilion at Disney’s EPCOT Center, one of the company’s Orlando, Fla., theme parks.

The plan was never realized, but because of the Walt Disney World Co.’s gift to the Smithsonian museum in 2005, thousands will see the Tishmans’ incomparable legacy.

When museum director Sharon F. Patton accepted the gift at the time, she estimated its worth at $20 million to $50 million.

From the late 1950s through the 1970s, the couple concentrated on art from the Benin kingdom and Yoruba peoples — in present-day Nigeria — then from smaller countries such as Sierra Leone, Mali and Ivory Coast.

The Tishmans loved the color red in all of its shades and hues, such as those shown in the Yoruba work “Veranda Post.” Although faded from its original red, the post once was one of 12 circling an imposing palace courtyard. Visitors will notice the multitude of incised surface patterns.

Red dominates the opening gallery as well, with a huge Igbo work, a male figure — possibly a founding ancestor or warrior — energetically slashed with red and ocher.

The “Figure of King Bay Akiy,” from the Grassfields region of Cameroon, is an image of wood, ivory, pigment, hair, bone and cloth and is the most expressive piece, showing the monarch returning triumphant from battle. Seated on a ferocious leopard, he triumphantly holds up his enemy’s severed head.

The early-19th-century Isu kingdom master sculptor Bvu Kwam created the extraordinary work.

Appearing gentler, but almost as brilliantly red, the Nuna peoples’ mask seems to “dance” as a fluttering butterfly.

Dramatic in a different way is the antelope-skin-over-wood mask from Nigeria’s lower Cross River region — part human with gaping teeth and painted blue eyes, part animal with curved horns that could be taken for a fashionable female hairdo. In their use of leather, Miss Freyer believes the artists wanted a realistic, solid surface for pigment and incised scarification.

One of the most memorable sculptures is the intricately carved ivory female figure, perhaps a queen’s diminutive attendant. The ivory carver was so skilled that he successfully incised simulated coral beads into the figure’s neck.

Other astonishingly cut ivories appear in a nearby gallery, including a sinuously designed 16th-century Yoruba armlet and a 15th-century Sapi-Portuguese-style “Hunting Horn.”

It’s worth a visit just to see these tours de force.

Another extraordinarily crafted piece in the same gallery, but of a different, blackish-brass lost-wax cast technique, is an 18th-century Benin “Rooster” replete with surface patterns. Benin kingdom court brass casters such as these rarely have been equaled.

The Tishmans collected masses of masks, usually regarded as power instruments and as mediators between the living and supernatural worlds.

Those in the exhibition vary tremendously. One from the Wee people of Ivory Coast looks as if he could lead a parade to hell. Mounted on a copper-colored wooden “face,” his fanged mouth lights up his red cloth tongue, with eyes and nose forming closed ovals. Its most exciting feature are the tiny bells — looking as if they could ring any minute — surrounding his dreadlocked face.

Another mask, from the Bamum people of Cameroon, seems almost human with its yellow pop eyes, gentle smile and bushy raffia beard.

An impressive Ijo crest mask from Nigeria, possibly a water spirit, was colored an earth ocher. Originally painted orange with blues, whites and blacks, it sits horizontally atop the wearer’s head so that the snout is in front, the tail in back and the eyes in the squared center looking up.

As the wall label suggests, it could represent “spirits floating on the surface of the water.”

Finally, a Yoruba beaded crown made with hundreds of orange, lavender and green glass beads — an ornamental headdress fit for a king — is a dazzling coup for this magnificent show.

Paul and Ruth Tishman crafted this extraordinary vision. It has found a perfect home.

WHAT: “African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection”

WHERE: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Sept. 7, 2008

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: http://africa.si.edu

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