- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2001

The exhibit "Encounters With the Contemporary" brings us appealing, intriguing works out of Africa.

Mounted by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art, the display seeks to convey what is new and unique about art from the continent and its diaspora.

Although recognized for its collection of traditional African arts, the museum has only occasionally exhibited contemporary art. It is making up for lost time with this superlative display of 62 works by 32 artists drawn from its permanent collection.

Elizabeth Ann Harney, the museum's new curator of contemporary art, framed the display to include a sweeping scope of styles from modernist pioneers such as Alexander "Skunder" Boghossian's "Spring Scrolls" to Berni Searle's experimental inkjet digital prints.

Artists creating ceramics, sculpture, prints and mixed media are the most impressive. The two potters, Kenya's Magdalene Odundo and Sudan's Mohammed Ahmed Abdalla, almost steal the show.

Miss Odundo's work may be more familiar to local audiences, but Mr. Abdalla's has a powerful range of artistry. The surface of his glazed porcelaneous stoneware "Vessel" looks like that of eroded volcanic rock.

Mr. Abdalla, 65, draws on both Sudanese traditions and English models — he trained in London — for his adventurous surfaces, according to the exhibit label.

He has applied a series of glazes to a coiled form that he fired for animal hide-like hardness. Mr. Abdalla then dipped the container in a magnesium slip and fired it again for its roughened surface.

His other pots are delicate porcelains. He painted one with slashes of green, rose and gold.

Miss Odundo is primarily interested in bending archetypal forms, such as vases and bowls, into unusual shapes. Her "Untitled #1" pot is classic in its perfect flow of parts from a narrow base, to a sensuous swelling at the shoulder, to a pushing out at the narrower, circular lip.

Another, "Reduced Angled Spouted Black Piece," reveals a more unusual approach. The artist did, indeed, flare it and embellish its orange-rust coat with pools of burnished blacks.

Artists in this show are attracted to the three-dimensionality of both pottery and sculpture. In "The Ancestors Converged Again," Ghanaian El Anatsui formed the heads of important African ancestors as a horizontal frieze of different colored woods. The artist says the ancestors "gathered" to discuss Ghana's troubles.

Sokari Douglas Camp transformed the traditions of her native Kalabari tribe into kinetic, often hilarious, metal figures. The exhibit's "Small Iriabo (Clapping Girl)" calls up a coming-of-age ceremony for girls. They dress, as here, in colorful cloth wrappers and coral jewelry when presented to the community.

The print mediums also are impressive. Mohammed Omer Khalil transmits what he views as the tragedy of Sudanese life with tones of blacks rivaling those of Rembrandt.

Mr. Khalil favors etching mixed with aquatint and drypoint for his artistic program. "If I get the right tone in deepest black, then the rest works out," he says.

The music of Bob Dylan inspired his 1986 "Tombstone Blues." He discussed his vision with Sylvia Williams, former director of the African museum, in 1992.

"I listened to Dylan every day … at a point in my life there was an empathy with the sadness and anger in Dylan's music. In 'Tombstone Blues,' the feeling I got from the song was of something menacing. It reminded me of the city of Suakin, a town in Sudan that died," he said.

While Mr. Khalil's imagery is surreal and mysterious, Cyprian Shilakoe's is direct. Mr. Shilakoe, who also combines etching with aquatint, presents "The Blind."

The South African artist shows a person disenfranchised both by race and physical disability. It's an image that goes straight to the heart.

To get an idea of how contemporary African work differs or is similar to such work here, one can compare pieces by a few African and Washington-area artists.

Mr. Anatsui, for example, has created an impressive 9-foot-high construction called "Erosion," which can be found in the first gallery.

Local sculptor Foon Sham did "Three in a Complement," which stands on the grounds of Arena Stage in Southwest. Mr. Sham created two vessel-like latticework forms, each 12 feet high. They are meant to simulate shelters, and viewers can go into them.

Both sculptors build thin flat pieces of wood into upward-climbing, monumental images. Mr. Anatsui, 57, accents his free-standing tropical wood sculptures with paint and burning. The artist says he pictures today's devastating destruction of cultures when he consciously scars part of his work.

Mr. Sham, 47, is more concerned with the geometry of shapes, their harmony and balance, and juxtaposing different kinds of woods. He is not concerned with message.

Consider also South African William Kentridge's beautifully drawn "Head" and Washington sculptor Yuriko Yamaguchi's snakelike drawing in her last "Metamorphosis" show at Numark Gallery. "Head" will be shown in the exhibit's second rotation during May to August.

The gentleness of Mr. Kentridge's linear imaging belies his deadly message. A South African sniper lines up a peaceful sleeper for his lethal bullet. Miss Yamaguchi, by contrast, distills life's universal cycle in a snake's coiling and uncoiling.

This is an interesting show. "Messages" do not overwhelm the medium, and anger and hatred are soft pedaled. The exhibit will showcase new works every four months during the yearlong display. It's well worth the visit.WHAT: "Encounters With the Contemporary"WHERE: National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Jan. 26, 2002. The exhibit shows in three rotations: Through April 2001, through August 2001 and through January 2002TICKETS: FreePHONE: 202/357-4600


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