- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2004

It’s impossible not to be profoundly moved by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s “Insights,” a searing artistic reminder of the cruelty and violence that defined South African apartheid.

The exhibit showcases 30 works from the museum’s permanent collection by nine African artists with ties to South Africa or its diaspora.

At the exhibit’s entrance, Sue Williamson illustrates the demise of the once vibrant, multiracial District Six in her audiovisual installation “Last Supper Revisited.” The Cape Town community was razed in 1966 when the government ordered that it be made a “whites only” area.

The artist asks visitors to share in what exhibit co-curator Allyson Purpura describes as the “last supper” with the Ebrahim family during a Muslim holiday. The Ebra- hims were one of the last families to lose their house.

Miss Williamson spreads what look like hundreds of votive candles across a low table. Actually, they’re small, lighted resin blocks holding scraps of cloth and detritus from the town. While shooting photos for the installation’s light boxes, she recorded talking voices and ambient sounds that she runs through an elevated loudspeaker.

By contrast, Cape Towner Zwelethu Mthethwa uses brilliant colors in both his large-scale photographs and his pastels to give dignity to migrant workers of the post-apartheid era. You’ll be unable to forget the eyes of the black man encircling his little albino son in his arms in the color photo labeled “Untitled.”

Another artist who opposed apartheid through his work is William Kentridge. Probably the most renowned artist working in South Africa today, he creates short animated films featuring ironic tragicomic personalities such as Soho Eckstein, a factory mogul who constantly runs a ticker tape, and Felix Teitlebaum, an ambitious actor.

The name of Sokari Douglas Camp, whose kinetic sculptures often decorate the museum’s first floor, is familiar to African Museum visitors. Many of her sculptures, such as the steel, mirror, wood, bells, cloth, paint and motor “Masquerader With Boat Headdress,” are extremely popular and vibrate on prescribed schedule.

Originally from Nigeria and schooled in London, she returns often to visit her family. Her large, loosely figurative installation “Church Ede” is one of the most impressive works in the show.

“Ede” is a Kalabari word translated as “bed for lying in state,” according to the exhibit label. The installation is a tribute to the artist’s father, Chief Ngogo Obene George Douglas, who died in 1984.

Works of the other artists also should be appreciated. Jeremy Wafer creates ovoid heads of black painted plaster, wax and pigment. Mainly abstract, but with incision marks that recall African scarification and pottery motifs, they recall traditional, but undecorated, African masks.

Ezrom Legae (1938-1999) is terrific as both a sculptor and draftsman. He looks at Michelangelo’s “Pieta” in his sculpture “Sacrifice.” Instead of the female figure holding the dead Christ, however, she cradles a dead goat that symbolizes the crying out of black activists.

Iba N’Diaye, who grew up in Senegal and now lives in Paris, contributes “Hommage a Bessie Smith,” a superior rendering of an expressionist jazz scene that’s part of a series devoted to jazz and gospel performers.

Ganvin Jantjes, who grew up in Cape Town’s District Six and now lives in Norway, painted an ecstatic-seeming acrylic interpreting the Khoisan peoples’ belief that a young girl reached into a fire, threw flaming embers into the sky and created the Milky Way.

As impressive as the work of all nine artists here is, however, viewers will find the meanings of many specific works unnecessarily obscure as the result of a regrettable shortage of interpretive wall labels.

In considering the exhibition in its totality, it must be said that works of this caliber also deserve a better exhibit design. The show is mounted in the approximately 37,000-square-foot Sylvia H. Williams Gallery, named after a former African museum director, and devoted solely to showing contemporary African art. The space is good, but the ambience is not.

How about some of the brilliant colors that make the museum’s concurrent “Playful Performers,” a multimedia presentation of children’s masquerades in Africa, come alive?

These exhibit shortcomings notwithstanding, these terrific works overcome their surroundings and are a testament to the museum’s fine and growing collection of work by living African artists.

WHAT: “Insights”

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

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Through Dec. 5


PHONE: 202/633-4600

WEB SITE: www.nmafa.si.edu

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