From my gallery years in the 1970s to 1990s, and up through the present, I have had the good fortune to know and befriend Irwin Hersey and Sam Hilu. As I became more and more involved in writing and curating exhibitions of African art on the East Coast, they have been wonderful collaborators and resources on many projects.
The field of African art has developed at a phenomenal pace since the initial flood of American collectors in the 1960s. In the ensuing years, tastes have changed and collections have matured. As a result, American collectors have had access to an abundance and wide variety of African art and, thus, an opportunity to study it more closely. At the same time, scholarship on African art has grown exponentially through African Studies programs at universities, the publication of monographs and books, and the numerous exhibitions of African art held throughout the country. In the past fifty years, scholars first compared African art to cubism, and later to many other “isms” including abstractionism, minimalism, symbolism, and so on—each new era of western art finding a correlative in the African arts.
Over time, aesthetic values have developed to include everyday African art and artifacts that were not studied or collected before. One new source of study is Kuba textiles and Kuba wooden artifacts which form this exhibition and come from Sam Hilu’s collection. These works exhibit a sense of design and symbolism that is unique to the Kuba culture. The range and diversity of textile designs is staggering. Made with exquisite craftsmanship, in bold configurations, with lavish decoration, and frequent improvisation, Kuba textiles are viscerally attractive. Likewise, their richly ornamented wooden artifacts are finely cut, interlaced with geometric patterns, and display the skilled workmanship and preference for complex patterning of the Kuba people. These cups, boxes, divination crocodiles, smoking pipes, drums, and other pieces are all covered with linear and geometrical motifs.
The best known Kuba textile is the Kuba skirt. The Kuba skirt has frequently been compared to modern art of the 20th century because, unrolled and laid flat, the skirt is similar to a canvas: a large cloth rectangle with an abstract design. As in modern art, a Kuba skirt may depict simple fields of color, or have strong, simplified patterning. Other Kuba skirts are full of complex geometrical shapes and unexpected details. The overall designs may be symmetrical or asymmetrical.
Moreover, as the recent Cameroon exhibition at the QCC art gallery demonstrates, the art and artifacts of African culture are more interrelated than was previously imagined. All objects, large and small, special occasion and everyday, are components of the traditions, history, and aesthetics of its people.
In this exhibition, “high art” and “low art” come together and merge the definitions of art versus decoration. The Kuba’s complex geometric decorations on their textiles and wooden objects allow us to test these concepts and redefine them. In this re-evaluation and rediscovery, African art is a never-ending source of inspiration, wonder, and stimulation.
We are deeply indebted to Sam Hilu for lending his comprehensive Kuba textile collection and wooden artifacts to this exhibition. These objects greatly contribute to our knowledge of African art and the ever-changing understanding of cultures, functions, and concepts.