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March 17, 2005 - Image 11

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The Michigan Daily, 2005-03-17

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12B - The Michigan Daily - Thursday, March 17, 2005
Art exhibit celebrates Nigerian culture

00

By Kathryn Rice
Daily Arts Writer
If meandering visitors to the Univer-
sity of Michigan Museum of Art are
lucky enough, they will stumble upon
"Masterworks of African Art: Yoruba,"
a small but splendid exhibition tucked
in the upstairs corner of the museum.
The relatively modest space that the
gallery occupies at the UMMA almost
appears to mirror the understated con-
sciousness of the African art of the
typical museum-goer. However, those
who walk through the exhibit will find
a vibrant collection of pieces that radi-
ate with brilliance and charm.
To the untrained western eye, these
objects may at first seem cryptic and
bizarre. However, David Doris, an
art history professor and co-curator
of the exhibit, challenges this com-
mon reaction, saying, "We often think
of Africa as somehow backward and
primitive. We think African culture
doesn't move; Africans don't concern

themselves with moral issues. But this
is the art of a classical civilization."
All of the pieces presented in gal-
lery are taken from the Yoruba, an
ethnic group in southwestern Nigeria
that enjoys a rich cultural and artistic
heritage, dating as far back as 1,000
years ago. Though visitors may appre-
ciate the magnetic beauty of the items
within the display, to the Yoruba,
these pieces of art were the ubiquitous
objects of everyday life. Guest curator
for the exhibit Michael Kan, said, "Art
for art's sake is practically unknown in
Africa." Indeed, it appears that even
the most dazzling pieces of Yoruban
art are embedded in the context of day-
to-day life.
For example, one piece on display
is a warning sign to thieves, called an
aale. The piece is a haunting assem-
blage to trespassers; its creator used
palm fronds to tie together a number
of empty and broken objects intended
to reflect the thief's eventual downfall.
While, as Kan puts it, "Most of our
art comes from Madison Avenue," the
aale serves as a potent example of how
remarkable pieces of art can sprout
unself-consciously from the grit of
everyday life.
Most of the pieces in the show-
case were created to perform practi-

cal roles as the emblems of spiritual
or moral beliefs, and religious affili-
ations appear to manifest themselves
in all aspects of Yoruban life. Carv-
ings throughout the display depict the
dramatic and colorful personalities of
different deities. The spirits depicted
in Yoruban art act as what Doris calls,
"the personification of natural forces,
regarded as moral issues." Sculptures
of the spirits therefore serve as power-
ful social reminders of virtues such as
modesty, respect for ancestry and care-
ful decision-making. One example, of
these spirits, is the figure of Sango,
who personifies "lightning as moral
force." This trait is viewed as the sud-
den ability to counteract evil. Perhaps,
the moral emphasis of art work can be
best understood as the expression of
the Yoruban proverb: "character is the
beauty of the person."
The exhibit is the third in a series
of installments intended to showcase
different varieties of African art. The
first exhibition displayed art from the
Congo Basin, while the second present-
ed works from Gabon and Cameroon.
Kan opted to shape each installment
around specific cultural niches.
"It is impossible to do justice to the
art of an entire continent. I thought it
would be better to do style areas in

JULIA TAPPER/Daily
An African mirror sits on display as part of the Yoruban exhibit at the Uni-

versity of Michigan Museum of Art.
some depth and thereby do them jus-
tice," Kan said.
However, what makes the exhibit
most inventive is that it was created in

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collaboration with a freshman semi-
nar class on Yoruba visual culture,
taught by Doris. The project allowed
students to plunge into real museum
work, as they researched and com-
posed extensive texts for each work of
art, excerpts of which appear on the
showcases and walls of the exhibit.
Throughout the semester, the class
learned to manage the practical tasks
of museum work while exploring the
abstract nuances of the Yoruban art.
According to Doris, the students of.
the seminar have enjoyed immense
rewards for their efforts; they can see
the fruits of their labor printed in the
gallery guides, while awaiting the
expected publication of their complete
essays.
In the final product, the gallery has
welded together an eclectic mix of
viewpoints from students, curators and
artists. Visitors are invited to view the
objects through a number of different
lenses, and realize their own inter-
pretations of Yoruban artistry. Doris
describes the mutable possibilities of
the artwork saying, "The text includes
many different voices - you get a
sense of the object as not one thing,
but many things. It becomes what we
require it to be."
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