Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Exotic in the Eyes of African Beholders // 'Through African Eyes' at the Detroit Institute of Art

Full article here // Excerpt below

The New York Times Art Review

by Holland Cotter

DETROIT — For centuries Euro-American eyes have been
trained on Africa. We’ve scanned it from afar, surveyed it up close, put it behind glass; looked and looked, wonderingly, acquisitively, disdainfully, fearfully. But we rarely seem to be aware that during all that time Africans have been looking back at us — wonderingly, acquisitively, disdainfully, fearfully. A remarkable exhibition called “Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present,” which opens Sunday at the Detroit Institute of Arts, gives a vivid hint of what they’ve seen.

One thing is whiteness, a confusing sight. The show begins with two wood figures carved by Kongo artists in Central Africa in the 19th or early 20th century. One figure is female, the other male; both have similar facial features and painted white skin.

The female figure — nude, kneeling and tensed — is almost certainly a traditional image of an ancestral spirit and was possibly created as a grave marker. Her chalky pallor signals her unearthly status. The male figure is harder to understand. He isn’t nude. He wears a European-style jacket and a helmetlike hat. He sits as if relaxed, with a leg crossed over the other. Does his white skin indicate that he’s a spirit too or, given his attire and pose, a light-skinned foreigner?

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