- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

Africa, the world’s second-largest continent, overwhelms in size and scale. With 11.7 million square miles of terri- tory, 54 countries, the globe’s largest desert (the Sahara) and longest river (the Nile), Africa is a place of stunning enormity. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art’s “BIG/small” features varying takes on size and scale. For example, displays of tiny Akan gold weights can seem large, while bigger objects, such as an “Amulet in the Form of a Miniature Slit Gong,” appear small.

The museum asks that we explore the “whats” and “whys” of the exhibit’s 105 African objects and then puzzle them out together. However, such a first-rate show doesn’t really need a family-oriented theme. Drawn mainly from the museum’s permanent collection and those of top private collectors, it is enough that the works are extraordinary.

Exhibit curator Bryna Freyer says she organized the 106-item display around African craftsmen with “a big attitude by adjusting the proportions of the [human and animal] figures’ parts, using detailed features and ornaments and paying attention to the outline” of how they are posed.

Consider the exhibit entry’s 1.5-inch, exquisitely sculpted, bronzelike “Pendant Female Figure” from the Dogon peoples of Mali.

Carefully examine how the tiny woman, probably an ancestral image circa 1500-1800, throws her head backward, jutting her chest forward while tightly holding her knees. “The figure is small,” Miss Freyer says, pointing to its innate energy and tightly coiled tension, “but the artist meant it to feel big.”

The large, moving computer-generated graphic behind her also demonstrates the woman’s inherent monumentality.

By contrast, traditional South African outer-wall home designs carry over to current consumer products in the oversized, brilliantly colored “Coke Bottle.” Coca-Cola Co. commissioned six South African Ndebele women to bead the 7-foot-tall plastic bottle for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

A triumph of old and new geometric designs, it’s the hit of the show.

Scale, or relative size, can express power. The 27-pound copper alloy “Plaque,” probably crafted for a Nigerian Benin kingdom ruler, shows a royal court consisting of six men and a boy. The modeled, almost three-dimensional image of the powerful ruler at center is the biggest and most decorated figure, while the boy, the smallest, remains naked.

By contrast, busts of two foreign soldiers — probably Portuguese — occupy the upper corners. Alien to the local culture, they are considered unimportant and, therefore, are rendered smaller.

Color also takes the floor — on a raised platform — in the third room’s enormous, multicolored Yoruba “Masquerade Costume.” Made of cloths, woods, metals and plastics, it seems to “dance” on its own. But wait, a nearby photomural brings it back to Earth by showing the dress attached to a wooden board atop a dancer’s head.

A wooden spirit “Mask” from the Loma peoples of Liberia and Guinea stars here, as well. It seems to howl, “Oh, what big teeth you have/All the better to eat you with,” as described on the exhibit label. It once dripped red fruit juice — representing blood — that was expelled from its horrific jaws and eaten by a spirit, who, Miss Freyer notes, was believed “to eat boys and spit them out as men.”

Near the exhibit’s end, a partially rolled, 20-foot-long cotton “Asafo Banner” from the Ghanaian Fante peoples shows ceremonies involving stylized humans, fish, birds, water and animals, including elephants, who performed for the well-being of the Asafo peoples.

At this point in the tour, visitors can look up to see it raised two stories above to encircle the entire 5,000-square-foot exhibition.

BIG, or small, this show is a charmer.

WHAT: “BIG/small”

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

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through July 9


PHONE: 202/633-4600

ONLINE: https://africa.si.edu

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