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An Anthology of African Art: The Twentieth Century

A Sengalese "souweres" glass painting

Sculptures: Africa, Asia, Oceania, Americas
(Editions du Seuil)

Mbembe sculture
Part of a Slit-gong
17th century (?)
Book Report
by Walter Robinson

Africa seems destined to be "rediscovered" by the Eurocentric art world every decade or so, most recently as part of the new global outlook that now characterizes international art festivals, notably the current Documenta 11 on view in Kassel, Germany. The curator of that massive exposition, Okwui Enwezor, has been the "go-to guy" for the African avant-garde, such as it is, organizing as well the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, the 2001 "Short Century: Liberation and Independence Movements in Africa 1945-94" and still other exhibitions.

Yet intellectuals and artists have long grappled with art and culture of the troubled continent, wrestling with issues both formalist and neo-colonial. Hardly a more accessible summary of this gnarled subject can be imagined than An Anthology of African Art: The 20th Century (D.A.P./Editions Revue Noire, $80), a sweeping, 400-plus-page survey of historical, tribal, urban and contemporary art production across the continent.

The two editors, Jean Loup Pivin and N'Goné Fall, are both veterans of the pioneering Revue Noire in Paris, and they oversee essays by two dozen contributors that give a rather exciting introduction to the multiple continent's multiple art forms -- from the various tribal art works of carved wood to Senegalese "souwères," or glass paintings, that would seem to have influenced Chris Ofili's images of African queens, to the cement portrait statues of Sunday Jack Akpan and the "messenger art" of the Bete philosopher and writer Frédéric Bruly Bouabré.

Perhaps more importantly, a section called "The Artist's Invention" examines "the sudden emergence of the concept of fine arts onto the African artistic landscape," thanks largely to Western-sponsored schools and workshops that began appearing in the 1920s in Ivory Coast, Zaire, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and elsewhere. Much of this material is eye-opening, the result of a clash between commercial and colonialist forces and the gifts of individual artists.

A final section, called "A Continent in the World," looks at the entry into the global marketplace of African artists, from Chéri Samba and Ouattara to Yinka Shonibare and Jane Alexander. This section is the most uncertain and incomplete -- no surprise when you think of it. With the publication of this book, clearly, there's more than one African art "go-to guy."

The second book at hand is an exemplary representative of the contemporary anthropological approach to the "distant arts," as Félix Fénéon famously called the far-flung non-European arts in the 1920s, courtesy of the very people who first introduced the avant-garde to Africa -- the French. Sculptures: Africa, Asia, Oceania, Americas (Réunion de Musées Nationaux, $90) is a 480-page catalogue of top works from the Louvre's collection, an exhibition organized at the museum in 2000 by the nascent Musée du Quai Branly (slated to open in its own facility in 2004) and its curator, Jacques Kerchache.

As is the form with such publications, several essays introduce an extended catalogue of images and accompanying text entries -- but here, each work pictured is more astonishing than the next. What's more, the known history of each item is succinctly given. Thus, the travels of a carved red cedar Kwakiutl house post depicting Dzonoqwa, a giant ogress with sunken eyes who breast feeds a dying woman, which was bought from a chief on Canada's Pacific coast in 1905 for $50, exhibited at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1912, traded to a Third Avenue antique dealer and sold to Max Ernst in 1942, who donated the artifact to the Musée de l'Homme in 1975.

Other items pictured among the 100-plus masterpieces include a impressively naturalistic stucco Maya face from Palenque, 600-900 AD, some ferociously anthropomorphicized wooden door panels from New Caldedonia and a copious number of great sculptures from African cultures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.

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