- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

If the National Museum of African Art’s “African Art Now: Masterpieces From the Jean Pigozzi Collection” doesn’t knock your socks off, you’re not human. This explosion of art, which includes the Kinshasa pop-art-like Popular Painting Movement and photography as expressive as legendary photographer Seydou Keita’s, is like no other.

The Smithsonian exhibit consists of 100 objects by 27 contemporary artists and is part of “CAAC: Contemporary African Art Collection” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The museum’s entire collection — 6,000 works by 93 largely untrained artists from 20 sub-Saharan African countries — was amassed over the past 15 years and organized, in part, by the Houston museum with African art specialist Andre Magnin as curator.

The exhibit made its U.S. debut at the Houston museum last spring and shows at the African Art Museum through Feb. 16.

The Harvard-educated Mr. Pigozzi, now based in Geneva, Switzerland, and New York, first saw this art in 1989 at Paris’ globally oriented exhibit “Magiciens de La Terre” and was, as he says, “captivated.”

“The colors. The imagination. The subjects. All new and often fun,” Mr. Pigozzi said recently in an interview with Mr. Magnin for the exhibit’s catalog. “I am not an intellectual. I am just an obsessed collector.”

The biggest surprise of the many surprises here are the artists of the Popular Painting Movement, a group based in Kinshasa who believe that art can change history. The group initially was led by Monsengwo Kejwamfi, better known as Moke. He arrived in Kinshasa in 1960 as a 10-year-old orphan who painted cardboard pieces to support himself.

That also was the year that Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, freed itself from Belgium. The country probably was the most cruel of the Europeancolonial powers that exploited Africa. Under King Leopold II (1835-1909), agricultural overseers were ordered to chop off the hands of slower field workers.

Later, Moke set up a studio in the megalopolis and became the sympathetic, often humorous, “painter reporter” of the city’s street scenes and all-night parties.

When he died in 2001 at the age of 51, Moke was mourned as Kinshasa’s most loved painter.

Working extraordinarily large as Moke had were other “movement” artists, including Camille-Pierre Pambu Bodo, called Bodo, inspired by the visionary 15th-century Netherlander artist Hieronymus Bosch and the now internationally known Cheri Samba, whose art is an intriguing combination of Rene Magritte and M.C. Escher.

As a photographer himself, Mr. Pigozzi, heir to the Simca automotive fortune, probably sought out African photographers. He wisely chose Mr. Keita, who just recently died and who became a worldwide, iconic portrait photographer most famous for gelatin silver “untitled” prints.

One of the exhibit’s most extraordinary Keita works is the “Untitled” of 1956-1957 (printed 1998) of an enormous man holding a laughing baby.

Other photographers are younger, more “hip.” One is Lemvo Jean Abou Bakar Depara, called Depara, who chronicled Kinshasa’s lively night life in the 1950s and 1960s. (He named his studio Jean Whiskey Depara.) Malick Sidibe recorded Mali’s exuberant rock-and-roll break from colonialism.

The sculptors also are extraordinary. Madagascar’s Efiaimbelo re-creates the tall “aloalas,” or funerary stele, that mark tombs there. One of the first sculptors to decorate the supports as well as the tableaux on top, the artist stacks figure eights (the number for abundance and the symbol for the full moon) to construct the supports, and expressively carves and paints figures above.

Robotlike painted wood-plastic-metal sculptures — one even has synthetic hair — by Koffi Kouakou, a believer in spirits, stand nearby. Also prominent is Sierre Leone’s John Goba, who makes porcupine-quill-decorated sculptures for the city’s protective Ode-lay rituals.

Most impressive are Benin’s Romuald Hazoume’s haunting, often terrifying, “masks” of enormous plastic containers and gasoline canisters; Calixte Dakpogan’s “masks” of scrap metal inspired by the divinity-based Vodun belief system in Benin ; and Samuel Kane Kwei’s symbolic coffins.

A love of fantasy also is here, as seen in Bodys Isek Kingelez’s utopian city, George Di Nyama Lilanga’s hilariously funny figures, and Abu Bockari Mansaray’s meticulously drawn preparatory drawings for futuristic machines.

Of course, much more greets visitors. This is a feast for the eyes and imagination and brings cheer from this chaotic continent.

You’ve got to see this show.

WHAT: “African Art Now: Masterpieces From the Jean Pigozzi Collection”

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

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


PHONE: 202/633-4600

ONLINE: Africa.si.edu

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