STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
“The human story begins in Africa,” remarked Julian Siggers, the Williams Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Speaking at a preview event for the five-part “Creative Africa” exhibition that’s taken over the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building, Siggers added that the Penn Museum’s oldest artifacts are from Africa.
An intriguing selection from that museum’s collection can be found in “Creative Africa”’s centerpiece, “Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art,” which is in the Special Exhibitions Gallery through Dec. 4.
Presented in a way intended to engage the viewer, “Look Again” examines several hundred years of artistic heritage in west and central Africa, including ornately carved ivories and bronze altar objects from the kingdom of Benin; Kongo power figures created to strengthen, protect or heal their users; Kuba (Democratic Republic of the Congo) woven textiles and wood vessels; Akan gold weights; and Kota reliquary figures made to protect bundles of ancestral relics.
“A portion of this exhibition is the re-imagining of design over time,” commented the Art Museum’s director and CEO, Timothy Rub.
An interactive digital interface station — jointly developed by the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Rampant Interactive and Frederic Cloth — gets you thinking about a singular object that’s on display, and comparing its stylistic qualities to groups of objects that you think it may be related to. “Look Again”curator, Dr. Kristina Van Dyke warned that it’s possible to effortlessly spend hours of time analyzing at this hands-on interactive that gets you thinking about the process, context and function of non-Western art.
The cross section of arts continues in a contemporary vein with thought-provoking black and white photographs depicting life in the rapidly growing cities of Johannesburg, Cairo, Nairobi in Kenya, Lagos in Nigeria, Bamako and Timbouctou. “Three Photographers/Six Cities” is in the Julien Levy Gallery through Sept. 25. The African photographers, displaying their work for the first time in the U.S., are Akinbode Akinbiyi, Ananias Léki Dago and Seydou Camara.
Themes that give pause for thought are the frequency of crosses that show up in functional designs all over the Muslim-majority city of Bamako, and an examination of ancient Islamic manuscripts in Mali that are in danger of being destroyed by civil unrest.
Adding a dimension to “Three Photographers/Six Cities” is a selection of African pop music playing in the background. “It’s a very fun soundtrack, and it’s on Spotify (@Philamuseum Art),” said Peter Barberie, Brodsky Curator of Photographs at the Art Museum’s Alfred Stieglitz Center.
“Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage,” in the Joan Spain Gallery through Jan. 22, pops with color, in classic and contemporary looks by the Vlisco company that marry tradition with luxury. Note how Afrocentric fashion design does not depend on flat patterns, as it usually does in the West. “African Fashion on a Global Stage” examines the process of creating a new textile, and showcases a selection of fashions by African and European makers, as well as Vlisco’s in-house design team.
The creativity of Burkinabe architect Francis Kéré is highlighted in the Collab Gallery and the Skylit Atrium with “The Architecture of Francis Kéré: Building for Community.” On view through Sept. 25, this exhibition sheds light on Kéré’s community-focused, contextually sensitive approach to building — which highly values local expertise and materials, as well as collective input. You’ll know where the Collab Gallery is by the rainbow of paracords at the end of the atrium corridor. At first, it appears as if it’s a random piece of art. In fact, it is a Kéré-designed, immersive and interactive site-specific environment that imaginatively superimposes the village blueprint of Gando in Kéré’s native Burkina Faso in west Africa, and the grid structure of a Philadelphia city block.
Upstairs in the Costume and Textiles Study Gallery, it’s yet another perspective on textiles with “Threads of Tradition,” through Jan. 31. Learn about strip weaving, resist dyeing, piecing, appliqué and embroidery, and try piecing together your own vivid patterns with blocks. It features traditional kente cloth, Asante and Ewe textiles, tie dyes, bead shell accented items, and more from west and central Africa, all acquired by the Art Museum in the last 15 years, or on loan from the Penn Museum.
What are the continuities and differences between African art forms over the centuries? Share your thoughts on social media with #CreativeAfrica on www.facebook.com/philamuseum; @philamuseum on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr; and PhilaArtMuseum on YouTube.
With differing run dates among its elements, “Creative Africa” is more like a season than a singular exhibition.
July 1 through Sept. 5, the Perelman Building will be home base for the museum’s annual Art Splash, which will engage children and families with activities centered on the “Creative Africa” exhibitions, and other aspects of African art and heritage, through performances, tours, stories, art-making and more.
“Creative Africa” will also feature artist-in-residence programs and additional public programming and events. Among them will be a discussion with photographer Ananias Léki Dago and Peter Barberie on June 25, and a performance by dancer and choreographer Nora Chipaumire, which will be part of FringeArts in September. Refer to www.philamuseum.org.