Visionary African Art at LACMA

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This is one of the best seasons in memory for museum exhibitions in LA, both contemporary and historic. Over the holidays, I recommend visits to MOCA, the Hammer and especially LACMA. Yet, it is also the time of Passover, Easter and spring. Natural abundance itself is a potent reminder of the life of the spirit. Animism, the notion that plants, animals and even objects can have souls, is one of the oldest belief systems and inspirations for artists. You won’t see that practiced much in contemporary art but you will in ancient and tribal art.

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Master of Bamendjo, Cameroon, c. late 19th century-early 20th century
Headcrest, late 19th century
Wood, paint, iron dowel, plant fiber and plant gum
Fowler Museum at UCLA, gift of the Wellcome Trust

The Innner Eye: Vision and Transcendence in African Arts is without a doubt one of the most extraordinary and uplifting of shows. Around 100 objects and textiles from the 13th to the 19th centuries, were brought together from all regions of Africa by guest curator Dr. Mary Nooter Roberts to display with ways in which various tribes have explored their sense of connection to the unseen realm of spirit.

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Beete Mask: Ram (Bata)
Early-mid 19th century, Gabon, Kwele peoples, wood and pigments, 15 x 17 5/8 x 2 1/8 in.
Photography by Peter Zeray, The Photograph Studio, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The orientation to the show presents work by the Yoruba tribe and their concept of the inner eye (ojú-inú) while the Sufi had batin, referring to the hidden side of reality. Masks reveal these preoccupations while being objects of profound invention and imagination.

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Ngi Mask, 1850, Gabon
Fang peoples, wood, kaolin and fiber, 24 1/2 x 11 5/8 x 8 in.
Photography by Joe Coscia, The Photograph Studio, Metropolitan Museum of Art

For example, “Ngi Mask” (1850) by the Fang peoples of Gabon, made of carved wood covered in white clay, is a heart shaped face with an elongated nose and small holes for eyes. The expression suggests concentration on the internal life. A giant wood headcrest by the Master of Bamendjo, working in Cameroon in the late 19th century, has bulging all-seeing eyes and gaping mouth and is entirely incised by thin lines of pattern. It was to be worn by the highest ranking officials during royal funerals.

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Shrine Figure, late 19th-20th century
Ijo peoples
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Photo © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Figures of carved wood stand as sentinels, figures of power or fertility. One of the most dramatic is a 19th-century Nigerian shrine figure with seven heads, each with glass eyes to harness the powers of the forest to protect the community. A smaller figure with multiple faces and tripod base has a topknot made of feathers. It is one of a group made by the Lega culture of the Congo and said to represent abstract knowledge manifest through the human form.

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Hornbill Mask for Poro Society, 19th century
Mano peoples
Wood, metal, cloth, vegetable fiber, and ink
12 x 5 3/4 x 15 in.
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Photo © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisico

There was no art school for the people who made these pieces yet their work upended academic training for artists from the beginning of the modern era, Picasso being the best known. The exquisite craftsmanship and the diversity of expression throughout the show can expand all of our ideas about African art. On view to July 9.

And as an aside, April 16 is this is the last day to see the transcendentally-oriented paintings of John McLaughlin at LACMA. Though not trained in art school but he studied the art and architecture of Japan. As a middle-aged man based in Laguna, he quietly produced geometric abstract paintings with carefully balanced areas of white, black and color. His art vibrates with a sense of serene purpose. To learn more, watch LA Times critic Christopher Knight discuss it on CBS morning news.