- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

Experiencing the National Museum of African Art’s “Resonance From the Past: African Sculpture From the New Orleans Museum of Art” is, at first, much like viewing most African art. We know, for example, about African art’s geometrizing of planes and dynamism of forms. We’re familiar with power symbols and objects that mediate between spirits and humans. We have seen similar masks, figures, pots, costumes, drums and veranda posts from all over the continent.

Yet this exhibit outshines most others as it reflects the honed eye of William Fagaly, New Orleans Museum curator of African art for the past 40 years. Thanks to his taste — and that of New York businessman and collector Victor K. Kiam, who donated his collection to the museum in 1977 — most of the pieces are exquisitely beautiful and often one of a kind. Long overdue for wider exposure, this extraordinary collection is part of a touring African art exhibit circulated by New York’s Museum for African Art.

One of the most riveting pieces here is the shiny dark brown wood female figure from the Bamana peoples of Mali, a piece Mr. Fagaly says is among the best of its kind. It is derived from a natural form, of course, but its balanced symmetry, perfect proportions, triangular head, conical breasts, striated body and cubed toe- and fingernails make it an impressive abstraction.

Mr. Kiam, the collector, particularly liked the Dogon minimalist approach, exemplified by the unusual stacked figures. Simplified and stylized like the female figure mentioned above, these could be attached twins or ancestors meant to show family continuity.

Maternity figures were favorites with all African nations, and the Dogon maternity figure is no surprise. More naturalistic than other Dogon forms, this female has a softness related to motherhood and nature’s fecundity. The rather humorous, stiff child, however, reflects the mother’s posture and even medieval European Christ Childs.

Also favored by both curator and collector is the art of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. More colorful and naturalistic than the more geometric Bamana style mentioned above, Yoruba art is exemplified by the work of the famous sculptor Olowe of Ise (circa 1875-1938).

According to the wall label, Olowe was a Yoruba court artist whom scholars deem one of the most innovative 20th-century artists in his lifelike depictions and elegant and elongated carvings. Here he is represented by a sculpted warrior palace veranda post, one of the few that have survived from among the many that once protected the Yoruba court.

An unusual Yoruba piece is the huge, colorful Egungun masquerade dance costume of cloth, metallic thread, glass beads and cowrie shells for the Egungun festival, in which the Yoruba believe the spirits of their ancestors manifest themselves through men doing swirling, almost dervishlike dances.

It’s refreshing to see that a small museum can build an important collection of African art if it has passionate men like Mr. Fagaly and Mr. Kiam behind it. Sections from the African collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art are a welcome addition to the Washington art scene.

WHAT: “Resonance From the Past: African Sculpture From the New Orleans Museum of Art”

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

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Jan. 28

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-4600

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