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AFRICAN ART/Two outstanding exhibits show `primitive' art in context

ONE cannot help but be amazed by the richness and diversity of art. It flourishes in all lands and among all people and assumes an almost infinite variety of forms. We are fortunate in this century not only to be able to examine and enjoy art from every corner of the globe and from every era of the past, but also to live in a time when the creative efforts of individuals unlike ourselves are taken seriously. The fact that many of our greatest modern masters, most particularly Picasso and Matisse, borrowed heavily from African and other ``primitive'' sources, taught us a lesson that, it is hoped, we will never forget. To date, it seems we won't -- judging from the i mpact such art has had on our own painting and sculpture, and from the numerous shows assembled around the world to honor and to illuminate the character and quality of ``primitive'' works.

Two such outstanding exhibitions, in this case devoted to the art of Africa, are currently on view here. ``Sets, Series and Ensembles,'' at the Center for African Art, unites groups of African artworks to show them as they were originally meant to be seen, and ``The Art of Cameroon,'' at the American Museum of Natural History, presents a broad spectrum of sculpture and other pieces from that West African nation.

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``Sets, Series and Ensembles'' explores the interrelationship of works of art within an aesthetic rather than a social or anthropological context, as is commonly the case in displays of African art. In addition, it emphasizes the meaning and function of the pieces as a group, presents works as they appeared to their creators and, since sculpture in sets was generally made to join existing ones, provides an opportunity to study the influence of earlier styles upon later ones.

Dr. Susan Vogel, executive director of the Center for African Arts, explains that ``in Western society, we have wrenched African art from its original context and forced it to fit our own orientation -- as individual works of art created to stand on their own. The result is that the works are separated from their original function and meaning and overall aesthetic intention.'' It's like trying to experience and understand a multi-paneled altarpiece from a single panel or a multi-pieced sculpture from on ly one of its parts.

Among this exhibit's 100 objects are monumental shrine figures meant to be viewed as groups; beaded initiation masks intended to be used in sequence; and miniature divination sculptures serving a single purpose as a set. These are of wood, terra cotta, ivory, and various other materials, came originally from all over Africa, and were made as long ago as AD 1500 and as recently as this century. The exhibition was curated by George Preston, and represents the holdings of numerous major public and private collections.

I cannot recommend this show highly enough. It is obvious, from the moment one enters the center until one leaves it, that only exceptionally fine pieces were included, and that among them are several truly major works of art. This is apparent from the latter's authority, authenticity, style, and character. One need not be an expert on African art, for instance, to know that the two wooden stools and the bead-and-cowrie-shell-covered mask from Zaire are first rate, nor that one is in the presence of ext raordinary monumental sculpture the second one comes face to face with five large and very powerful shrine figures lined up in a row.

No, important art has an identity and an impact all its own -- as is proven over and over again in this splendid and important exhibition.

At the Center for African Art, 54 East 68 Street, through Oct. 27. Art of Cameroon

Cameroon is situated on the western coast of Africa just north of the equator, and it has long been a crossroads for the extensive migration of many peoples. Distinct cultural patterns have developed in its different natural environments. The inhabitants of the forest and coastal regions tend to have village organizations and egalitarian social structures; those in the Grassfields, centralized political institutions marked by chieftaincies, regulatory societies, and judicial organizations; and those in the northern tropical rain forests, an Islamized society of cattle herders and warriors.

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Although the greatest concentration of art -- most of it representing the trappings of royalty, wealth, and status -- is to be found in the Grassfields, prime examples from every section of Cameroon are included in this handsome and fascinating exhibition. It includes 150 items, some borrowed from public and private collections in Africa, Europe, and the United States, and others from the Fons (chiefs) of Cameroon. All of the latter will be returned at the close of the show and replaced in their sacred

shrines for continued use in traditional ceremonies.

Many outstanding examples of Cameroon's distinctive wood carvings, beaded sculptures, animal icons, jewelry, and ceremonial masks are included, as well as memorial figures and prestige objects such as fly-whisks, garments, and pipes, some of which were covered with beads or cowrie shells as further proof of their owner's wealth.

To one without specialized knowledge in this field, the most impressive pieces are the large memorial ancestor figures carved out of wood; the royal stools, especially those with beaded animals; several zoomorphic vessels; and some beaded elephant masks. The latter are incredibly detailed and stunningly decorative -- qualities which also characterize two medium-size crests, one depicting an elephant and the other a leopard.

Also extremely effective are a large freestanding ``Memorial Grave Figure'' of 1908, almost entirely covered with glass beads and cowrie shells; a 19th-century ``Prestige Collar With Buffalo Heads''; and a large drum. An oddly touching note is struck by the inclusion of a 1970s hand-carved boy's scooter based on a Western model.

This excellent exhibition was curated by Tamara Northern for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and it was made possible by a grant from Mobil Oil Corporation. It will run through Oct. 15 at the American Museum of Natural History.

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