Through the Eyes of Our Ancestors

May 19th to June 30th, 2011

James & Marjorie L Wilson

This exhibition places the art of various African cultures nearer to its original context, where sculpture is only part of a larger ensemble that creates a complete character, an ancestor, or a spiritual entity. Without all its components, that entity could not exist.

African art was traditionally made within a strict and complex social context. Workshops and carvers were often secluded as they rendered spiritually resonant objects and continued traditions, often with surprising changes in form or detail to keep up with the demands of changing societies. Within each culture, secret societies and/or royal courts decided when, where, and how an object was made. Currently in African cultures, many people contribute to the creation of a masquerade ensemble, whether in currency or in kind. A ceremonial mask or figure is commissioned from a carver, and the mask consecrated with input from a fetisheur who empowers it and costume makers who help create its identity. Ultimately, over its lifetime a mask or an ensemble undergoes change, whether through erosion, repair, or refurbishment. Additions such as textiles, metal, medicine amulets, and pigments affect both the wood and the costume. And that, of course, reveals the history of the object to people within the society and to Western collectors as well (see Surfaces, edited by Donna Page, Leonard Kahan and Pascal Imperato).

In the West, our recognition of different components within African art has evolved over time. Contemporary art in the West has moved beyond the abstract stage and is now in a polymorphic phase, which opens us to other aspects of African artistic production. Moving through Cubism to Abstraction, and through Minimalism to Conceptualism requires acceptance of change in our own views. These art trends changed as societal values, technology, trade, and contacts changed and developed. What was recently accepted as exciting rather quickly becomes doctrinaire and antiquated as new techniques, images, and values take their place.

We’re not suggesting that all these fast changes took place in African cultures, altering their art drastically from one generation to the next, though change occurred there too. Rather, we’re suggesting that we are predisposed to see and accept our own current perceptions within African art, and can pull from its numerous styles and expressions those that appeal to us most, given our current way of seeing and thinking. Neither is African art constant. There are many types of expression, representing a variety of institutions, traditions, and deities. We often pick that which we think represents “African art” according to the state of our own current knowledge. Then, where do we start?

About the Exhibit

In choosing these selections from Jim’s collection, we hope to have encapsulated the very essence of his vision. Jim Wilson has brought to the collecting of African art a larger statement, which he perceives as the true aesthetic. This approach integrates aspects of time, color, materials, music, and motion. Along with an object’s fine, and sometimes profound, sculptural values, he has collected the entire costume, which requires only animation to revive its original appearance. He wants to feel the spit on the piece, to hear the secrets whispered into the wood.

We hope this exhibition conveys that spirit; that it expresses a bit more than one expects to see in a show of African art. We hope it will communicate the excitement of the full tradition reflected through the variety of material, textiles, colors and forms; that it will convey the sounds of the music, the motion of the dance, and the feeling of the festival or court. He wants us to see the whole, and understand that sculptural form is just a part of something much larger.

It was work and fun putting this exhibition together. We explored new territory. It had many surprises and turned us away from conventional thinking, more toward Jim Wilson’s vision. “Through the Eyes of Our Ancestors” has opened our eyes a bit more, onto the complexities of African art and what makes it so captivating. Our exploration of its meanings and aesthetics has been and still remains an ongoing process.