Photography and the rise of African art

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / January 26, 2010

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The reliquary guardian sculpture in “Object, Image, Collector: African and Oceanic Art in Focus’’ at the Museum of Fine Arts has come a long way since it was carved by an unknown artist among the Fang peoples of Gabon in the 19th century. Then, the fierce but contained seated figure was a protector of relics of the dead. A century ago, it was an exemplar of Modernist aesthetics. Now it’s a museum piece.

In the early 1900s, the artists who celebrated the bold forms of African art - Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and more - didn’t, on the whole, give a fig about an African statue’s original meaning or context. They just cared about its form. These artists found African objects in Paris collections, and they pored over photographs of them.

“Object, Image, Collector,’’ organized by the MFA’s curator of African and Oceanic art, Christraud M. Geary, and photography curator Karen E. Haas, examines how photography helped shape what we see as the canon of African art, even as it developed into an art form itself, and traces the evolution of that canon through the 20th century. It’s a fascinating foray into the machinations of Western taste-making, featuring 50 works drawn from 20 Boston-area collections. Boston turns out to be a treasure-trove of African and Oceanic art.

African artifacts appeared in Europe in the first decades of the 20th century as France and other countries exerted power over colonies in Africa and the Pacific. The impact on artists and collectors was explosive, setting off a mania for things African that lasted into the 1920s, especially in Paris.

In 1914, African art showed up in a legendary exhibition at photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in New York. The exhibit drew on the collection of Frenchman Paul Guillaume, an early owner of the Fang reliquary guardian on view here. Stieglitz documented the show in his magazine Camera Work. That magazine is here, in the same display case as the reliquary guardian (the label notes that the magazine was a gift to the MFA by Georgia O’Keeffe, who married Stieglitz).

Painter and photographer Charles Sheeler shot a Fang figure (1916-1918) that closely resembles the one here: dark, with strong, expressive lines and a smooth, almost oily surface. The legendary Modernist’s African photos celebrate the lines and planes of his subject matter, but many of Sheeler’s photos are moody, shot in warm tones with shadows that caress and complement their subjects, revealing a trace of 19th-century Romanticism.

The Museum of Modern Art called on Walker Evans to photograph hundreds of the sculptures in its mid-1930s exhibit “African Negro Art’’ for a special portfolio. He takes Modernism a step beyond Sheeler with crisp edges, cool tones, and straight-on perspectives. Evans’s black-and-white image of a Bamana headdress from Mali portrays a swooping antelope in strict profile; it hangs beside a real, equally majestic antelope headdress attributed to a Bamana sculptor known as Master of the Flying Mane.

Artists and collectors took their cues from books and portfo lios of photographs of African art. Fernand Léger designed a stage set for the ballet “The Creation of the World’’ in 1923, drawing his inspiration from images in photography books. A stencil study for the set hangs near a page from Carl Einstein’s 1915 book “Negerplastik’’ featuring a photo of a Baule helmet mask from Cote d’Ivoire. Einstein’s was one of the first books to present African objects as art, singling out each piece, instead of showing them laid out as artifacts grouped in visual taxonomies.

By the 1920s, artists had wearied of Africa and looked to the South Seas for inspiration. It’s not hard to understand why Oceanic objects captured the imagination of Surrealists when you see the ferocious hook figure, a 7-foot-tall wood sculpture made principally of imposing talons, curving upward and downward above and below the head of a double-waddled cassowary. It is surreal, a mythic beast or a monster from a nightmare.

Man Ray used an Indonesian piece for the cover of his 1926 exhibition pamphlet “Ouverture de la Galerie Surréaliste: Tableaux de Man Ray et Objects des Îles.’’ It sports a photo of a seated, impressively crowned Nias Island sculpture against a spooky landscape painted by the artist.

The exhibition’s focus on photography wanes as it moves into the latter half of the 20th century. There’s a tonal shift that’s a bit too dramatic, given the curators’ intention to examine photography’s role in collecting, although they do include the 1970s spiral-bound “Oceanic Art,’’ a collection of photos and an essay by Paul Wingert put together by William Teel of University Prints; books such as these were standard issue for art history programs at universities and colleges and helped form the Western aesthetic for indigenous art.

Artists in newly independent countries in Africa and in the Pacific began to make objects to sell to tourists, and interest grew in media associated with women, such as textiles and pottery. There’s a terrific navigational chart from the Marshall Islands on view, denoting currents and wind directions with midribs from palm leaves and islands with cowry shells, and a gorgeous rattan sleeping mat from Borneo, Indonesia, made by the Ot Danum people, with a stunning pictorial pattern of a house and its inhabitants, bracketed by godlike giants.

Wall text tells us that the pair of male and female figures from Central Flores, Indonesia, each with hands open and eyes wide, have an interesting photographic history. They were originally shot by the Dutch colonial administrator there, and at that time, the statues were clothed. Not here: They’re naked wood, sleek and polished. I would like to have seen the photo.

These days, many collectors care as much about an object’s history and cultural significance as they do about its form. Contemporary artists do, too. The curators include a contemporary piece by Willie Cole, whose “Silex Male: Ritual’’ is a double photographic image of the artist covered in a pattern of marks made by a household iron. The iron signals domestic work, and the branding of slaves. Cole looks like an African warrior.

“Object, Image, Collector’’ looks at how the ideals we project onto African and Oceanic objects have changed over the last century. Ultimately, the exhibit isn’t about the works themselves, beautiful as they are. It’s about what we make of them, and how that changes.

OBJECT, IMAGE, COLLECTOR: African and Oceanic Art in Focus

At: Museum of Fine Arts, through July 18. 617-267-9300,