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A new museum for Africa's masterpieces

The opening of a new museum is always an exciting event. There is so much to see, and if one is fortunate enough to live near the museum, so much to anticipate.

The news that New York City would have a new showcase devoted exclusively to African art could not have been more welcome. Although African art had a profound effect on the development of modernism, and great examples of it can be found in the Metropolitan and other museums, the United States until now has had only one other museum - the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington - dedicated solely to such work.

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The Center for African Art is at 54 East 68th Street, in two adjacent, recently restored turn-of-the-century town houses. Although modern exhibition techniques have been employed to present the works on view at their best, the buildings' interiors retain much of their original elegance and charm. Large, dramatic African masks and figures stand in relatively small rooms that have richly ornamented Victorian ceilings and excellently preserved wood paneling. Small items cluster together in display cases, and a few larger pieces reside in rooms that before probably hosted nothing more exotic than porcelain figurines and a few 18th-century prints.

It all works very well. The emphasis is definitely on art, but in surroundings that give the impression that one has been invited into the home of important private collectors to view their prized possessions.

As a matter of fact, the opening exhibition on view at the Center was drawn from a collection, and a great one at that. The Musee de l'Homme in Paris was founded in the mid-1800s to house ethnographic items sent to France by explorers , missionaries, and merchants. By the end of the century it was particularly rich in African art, including numerous pieces now recognized as among the best from that continent. It was from this collection that Susan Vogel, executive director of the center, and Francine N'Diaye, head of the Black African section of the Musee de l'Homme, made their selection of 100 works for this inaugural exhibition.

One doesn't have to be an expert, or even particularly interested in African art, to be impressed by what they chose. They took first-rate examples from Mali to Madagascar, from the Akan to the Zulu.

Included are ceremonial masks, sacred items used in rituals, dolls, utilitarian objects, and musical instruments made of wood, gold, ivory, shells, vegetable fibers, and animal skins. These were collected by explorers in the 19 th and early 20th centuries as well as on scientific expeditions in the 1930s and '40s, ranging in date from 13th-century terra-cotta figures to 20th-century wooden objects.

It is difficult to pinpoint favorites, but a few pieces do stand out even in this company. I was particularly taken by a seven-foot-long Yangere drum in the form of an antelope from the Central African Republic; a life-size figure of a ''God of War'' from the Benin Republic; a large, wooden depiction of ''King Behanzin as a Shark''; a fascinating ''Oath-Taking Figure,'' complete with gourds and shells; and a powerful ''Male Reliquary Guardian'' from Gabon.

Less impressive but equally beautiful are an exquisitely slender ''Spoon Figure'' and a small ''Power Figure'' from the Congo.

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These and all other works in the show are illustrated in the exhibition's excellent catalog, which also includes essays by the co-curators and Dr. Jean Guiart, director of the Musee de l'Homme. It sells for $40 (hard cover) and $19. 50 (soft cover), and is available only from the center.

''African Masterpieces from the Musee de l'Homme'' will remain on view at the Center for African Art through Jan. 22. It will then travel to the National Museum for African Art at the Smithsonian (April 11-June 9, 1985) and to Los Angeles later in the year.

North Shore Art League

Regional art exhibitions featuring local talent are becoming more popular all the time, but few have lasted as long or done as well as the Old Orchard Art Festival of Skokie, Ill. It is coordinated by the North Shore Art League of Winnetka, whose nearly 1,000 members live in Chicago's northern suburbs and constitute a considerable portion of Illinois's artistic talent.

I had the pleasure recently of serving - together with Deborah Emont-Scott, curator of contemporary art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo. - as an awards juror at this year's festival. A jury of selection had pruned the original field of entrants down to 134 by the time we arrived, but even so, it took us the better part of a day to decide upon the 12 prizewinners.

Most of what we saw was accomplished and of solid professional caliber - if perhaps of a slightly more ''conservative'' nature than we had expected. But then, that could be at least partly explained by the fact that this show is intended more as an occasion for artists to sell their work to the public than as a purely professional event.

The latter is precisely what the North Shore Art League's other recurring exhibitions are noted for, however: The Midwest Craft Festival focuses on work done in pottery, glass, fiber, jewelry, and wood; New Horizons, which examines new ideas and directions in art, is held biennially in downtown Chicago; and the Illinois Regional Print Show, which also occurs biennially, concentrates on the graphic arts. In addition, the league sponsors shows in its own galleries; has a fully equipped teaching facility with 18 professional instructors; presents evening programs by specialists in the arts; and in general, does everything it can to make its community as art conscious as possible.

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