"A Sense of Wonder: African Art from the Faletti Family Collection," Jan. 29-Mar. 28, 1999, at the Museum for African Art, 593 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
A slew of surprises characterizes this show of approximately 70 exquisite works from Western, Central and Eastern Africa, assembled by Phoenix collector Richard Faletti, a businessman who began his collection after visiting the Jos Museum in Nigeria in the early 1970s.
A large number of the art objects come from present-day Nigeria. Many of the most interesting pieces come from Yorubaland on Nigeria's southern coast. Ogún, the Yoruba god of hunting and war, makes an appearance in two huge and unwieldy wood-carved headdresses from the Oye Ekiti region. Both pieces would have been worn by young, powerful males in yearly fertility festivals and other important occasions.
In one, a warrior sits on his horse bearing four severed heads atop a shield in his left hand, while holding a bell in his right hand. The bell rests on the head of a small figure playing a flute, perhaps the trickster god, Eshu. The warrior perches upon a large skull-like helmet-head that personifies death, yet he remains calm, thereby claiming his superiority. A rare and complex piece, called a Jagún-Jagún, it is heavily encrusted with sacrificial materials that give it additional power.
In the other, the mounted warrior has been made so fierce that he's grotesque. He even has a serpent crawling up his cap. Splotches of white paint energize the complex composition.
Similarly intricate in form is a pair of water spirit headdresses. Worn horizontally on the dancer's head, they consist of explosive conflations of animal and bird forms. Their wild geometries, accentuated by white pigment, express the darting energies of dream visions of hybrid, liminal creatures. The pair dates to the 19th century and comes from the western Niger Delta.
A slender wooden forest spirit is painted in red and white pigment -- associated with war -- because warriors appealed to this type of unruly god. This impressive vertically elongated figure, a little over five feet tall, carries a gourd with "bullet-protection" medicine around his neck.
For balance and restraint, the Yoruba shrine figure of a dog would be hard to beat. The Yoruba revered dogs as friends with spiritual powers, often giving them special names, making shrine figures in their honor, and sacrificing them to the gods. The Faletti canine, with its careful modulation between decorated and smooth areas, looks and feels quite modern.
The second largest grouping of works in the show is from Ethiopia -- four multi-panel paintings, mostly from the late 17th century, two manuscripts and seven processional crosses. A Roman Catholic himself, Faletti has a special interest in religion that shows not only in his amassing the Christian art of Ethiopia, but also in a Yoruba figure of a Catholic nun from the 1950s. The nun is less intriguing as art than as a reminder of how different religions have mixed and keep on mixing in Africa.
Additional pieces that tell a similar tale are a brass crucifix made by one of the Kongo peoples, reflecting their merger of Catholic and Yoruba beliefs, and a hornbill mask from the second quarter of the 20th century from the Ivory Coast. The raffia-trimmed mask of blackened wood represents a forest spirit. Unknown to those watching it perform, there is an Islamic inscription inside the mask that was put there to increase its efficacy.
There are plenty of other notable non-Nigerian things in the Faletti collection, such as a cheery tadep, or storehouse figure, from Cameroon, and an elegant Chokwe female caryatid stool from Angola. It would be difficult to pick just one favorite from almost any subgroup of this notable collection.
"A Sense of Wonder" was organized by Mary Nooter Roberts, former senior curator at the Museum for African Art, and Allen F. Roberts for the Phoenix Art Museum, where it opened. The show also has appeared at the Smart Museum in Chicago and the Krannert Art Museum in Urbana-Champaign. It is scheduled to appear at the Davenport (Iowa) Museum, Apr.18-June 13, 1999 and the Boise Art Museum, Feb. 26-May 7, 2000.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.