BY: Deborah Dietsch, Washington Post
Twenty-five years ago, New York's Museum of Modern Art mounted a controversial exhibit examining the relationship between modern art and "primitive" tribal cultures. The show was criticized for relegating non-Western art to a supporting role in the development of Western abstraction.
"Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens" tries hard to avoid this imbalance in presenting mostly straightforward, commercial photographs of African artifacts next to the real thing, but it runs into the same trouble. The touring show, organized by curator Wendy Goodman for D.C.-based International Arts and Artists, reduces the carved figures, masks and hats from West Africa to mere reference points for the photos.
Even worse, this exhibit is as dryly academic as the footnotes to a doctoral dissertation. Many of the 100 black-and-white photos by Ray and his contemporaries are more descriptive than interpretative, offering no new understanding of African artifacts.
Some of these 1920s and '30s images were taken by well-known artists Charles Sheeler and Walker Evans to record the African objects collected by Western patrons and museums, but they might as well have been shot by anonymous archivists.
Ray gets top billing, but the expatriate surrealist is also reduced to a documentarian. A chunk of his photos in the exhibit merely record the tribal art collected by Danish lawyer Carl Kjersmeier, who by the 1930s had amassed some of the largest holdings of African objects in the world.
Such Western interest in tribal artifacts grew from the colonization of Africa by Europeans, whose takeover of the continent is documented through a colored map. By 1900, few major artists were untouched by the fascination with African and Oceanic "primitive" art. Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and others were drawn to the styles and motifs from these non-Western cultures as a way to challenge traditional aesthetic ideas, which they saw as stagnant and irrelevant to modern society.
While Europeans understood African objects through the lens of colonialism, Americans viewed them as representing the legacy of slavery and segregation. Racial biases resulted in the negative perception of African art that persists to this day.
However, for black American artists, African art served as an affirmation of their heritage and identity. The most intriguing portion of the show — it would make a worthwhile exhibit on its own — is devoted to this embrace by members of the New Negro movement, as blossoming 1920s black culture was called.
Harlem photographer James Allen's portrait of graphic artist James Lesesne Wells shows his subject intensely engaged with a drinking cup from Central Africa. Wells gazes down on the face carved on the vessel as if communing with an ancestor.
One of the few paintings in the exhibit is by Lois Mailou Jones, a Harlem Renaissance artist who invigorated her art with African and Caribbean influences. "Les Fetiches" (the fetishes), painted while Jones was living in Paris, pictures a group of open-mouthed African masks like a human chorus around a cubist face.
Surrounding the lively canvas are Evans' photographs of masks from a 1935 exhibition of African art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibit suggests Jones based her painting on these images rather than actual objects, although the artist insisted her inspiration came from masks seen in Parisian galleries and museums. Certainly there was no scarcity of African objects in Paris, and modernist artists emulated both mediocre and first-rate sculptures.
In the last section of the show, high-minded art yields to popular taste in fashion photography incorporating African objects. The best of these is Ray's "Noire et blanche" ("Black and White") depicting a female head turned at a right angle to a mask from the Ivory Coast. Shot for Paris Vogue in 1926, Ray's carefully composed photo of opposites suggests the woman and the African object reflect the same modern beauty.
Following this stunner are repetitive images of tribal hats worn by Ray's dancer companion, plus view after view of the ivory bracelets collected by British heiress Nancy Cunard. Here, African art is reduced to trinkets of "l'art negre" worn by the fashionable and the rich, a trivialization the exhibit fails to condemn.
WHAT: Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens
WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday but to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday; through Jan. 10
ADMISSION: $12 adults, $10 students and seniors
WEB SITE: www.phillipscollection.org