By Giorgia Ferro
This an extraordinary exhibition running at the Archaeological Museum in Bologna until September 8th, a truly unique event.
Curated by the late Ezio Bassani and Gigi Pezzoli, the exhibition does not follow an ethnological itinerary but rather includes a narration of the art, stories of explorers and encounters with the West, in a mixture of influences and cross narratives.
Divided into nine sections, the exhibition showcases artifacts of great artistic quality by examining their formal value, including works from great African kingdoms, famous masks and symbols of power often used during rituals.
Hegel’s description of Africa; “the spirit without history, not yet developed, wrapped in natural conditions”, is proved wrong here where scholars propose quite a different vision: African culture is represented as having diverse and precise identities, which change over time and are open to foreign contacts. The section “Art of artists” by Bernard De Grunne is exemplary as it identifies the artists themselves, creating a true history of art.
The vast creativity of this continent shines throughout the show; from Mali, with its thousand years of wooden and terracotta statues, dating from the 11th century, to the courts and their art which offer a selection of treasures of the ancient city state of Ife, and the bronzes of the kingdom of Benin.
Another intriguing section which is very pleasing to the eye demonstrating the extreme craftsmanship of the African artists involved, is exemplified by the ivory objects, a selection of finely carved salt shakers, spoons, handles daggers and ciboriums commissioned by Portuguese merchants in the mid-fifteenth century.
An encounter with the spirit world is the section dedicated to ‘Vodu’ where objects were used to establish an open channel between this world and the other. Closer to home and essential to the development of the aesthetic of western artists at the beginning of the XX century, was the influence African art had on artists such as Picasso, Modigliani, the Parisian Cubists and the German Expressionists and these cross-influences are on display.
The exhibition closes with a window on contemporary African art, in search of a difficult balance between a past of tradition and a conflictual present. In a current political landscape that is often determined by protectionist views, a look at the historical richness and diversity of such a continent is a true enrichment for the soul, whilst reminding us that the Western artistic narrative to which we are accustomed is just a fragment of the vastness which often remains unexplored.