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Out of Africa, Artifacts Link Cultures Past And Present

Guggenheim show traces wealth of tradition, influence on later artists

The celebration of African art continues throughout the Guggenheim with "Africa: The Art of a Continent." This mega-show of more than 500 works is billed as the "first major survey of the artistic traditions of the entire African continent." It departs from other exhibitions of African art by including objects from Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

As might be expected when surveying such vast terrain, from prehistory to the 20th century, the exhibition relies on the glimpse-of-glam method. Like 30-second film clips shown on Oscar night, it dazzles in flashes at the expense of coherence and depth.

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Organized in seven geographical areas, the exhibition kicks off with a chunk of chipped quartz said to be 1.6 million years old. Excavated in the Olduvai Gorge by famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, the adz is thought to have been fashioned by an early hominid and is of purely antiquarian and ethnographic interest.

Not so a Stone Age hand ax from 600,000 BC. The banded ironstone is shaped like a perfect teardrop. Its tapering layers are so beautiful, it qualifies as the earliest known crafted object of aesthetic interest. Other ancient artifacts include fragments of cave drawings from 25,000 BC, with stylized antelope and human figures outlined in charcoal and ocher.

Lamentably, the examples of Egyptian art are much less impressive than objects in the permanent collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. The most noteworthy objects are two mummified cats. Each resembles a thermos bottle in shape, topped by a fabricated cat's head. Linen strips criss-cross the body in an intricate diamond pattern like a log-cabin quilt.

The most powerful objects in the show are "power figures." These multimedia sculptures are carved of wood, then "activated" by a ritual expert who inserts blades or nails into the torso to enlist spiritual forces. The vigorous carving and accumulated spikes invest the figures with a terrifying, mysterious aspect.

Masks used in rituals are also standouts, even when presented statically rather than as part of a mobile performance, combined with costumes. Often carved from wood in the shape of animals, the masks are full of force and strength.

A Cameroon buffalo mask is covered with macaroni-shaped cobalt beads. A painted swordfish mask from Guinea looks like a stingray with teeth. A fanciful elephant mask seems, to Western eyes, an inventive, expressive form. But what seemed new and worthy of emulation to modernists like Picasso was actually based on centuries of tradition in Africa.

Everywhere, we are reminded of the debt early 20th-century avant-garde art owes to African forms. A Fang reliquary wooden guardian figure reduces female features to basic forms, just as Brancusi did to transform European sculpture.

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The show improves in quality as it ascends the spiral ramp of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building. Toward the top, the viewer encounters one object after another of high quality, even those intended for purely functional use, like sleek staffs and stools.

The African mastery of wood as a medium is evident in towering, seven-foot-tall grave figures. These columnar carvings follow the cylindrical shape of a tree, using wood grain for vertical effect and to simulate a wrinkled face. A wooden lidded vessel from Swaziland has deep carving like Tramp art, its beehive shape incised in a dynamic spiral pattern.

Other mediums, too, are well represented, from refined Tuareg metalwork to beadwork. An ornate skirt from Tanzania, shining with glass beads like a Klimt painting, has the geometrical simplicity of a canvas by Mondrian. Tutsi baskets of dyed grass are sewn in coils in a round shape and rise to a pointed peak, echoing the huts of a kraal.

"The Art of a Continent" amply illustrates how African artists successfully absorbed and transformed influences as diverse as Phoenician, Roman, Christian, Byzantine, and Islamic, while preserving indigenous traditions. Their intensity of form endures.

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