Before you even walk into the gallery housing the African Art and the Shape of Time exhibit at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, you hear the driving drumbeat and techno music and sounds of the street. That drumbeat seeps into you and propels you through the gallery and through time, looking at the art of Africa with new eyes, new categories.
Americans do not always appreciate how large and diverse the continent of Africa is, with many different peoples, cultures, languages, and philosophies. Nor are we always aware of the Western and colonial lens through which we see other parts of the world. This exhibit looks at African art through a different lens, through the concepts of time, history, and memory.
Drawn from several collections, the thirty works in the exhibit are organized around five themes that explore different ways of conceptualizing time: The Beginning of Things, Embodied Time, Moving Through Time, Global Time, and NOW.
The Beginning of Things opens the exhibit with a hauntingly beautiful clay Mwana Pwo mask, the embodiment of feminine ideals, which calls to ancestral spirits to come bring it to life. The orange clay appears inert but the beauty of the ancestor catches my breath, makes me pause. Nearby stand a pair of stately Bamana head crests featuring the chiwara--willowy creatures composed of antelope, aardvark, and pangolin--in whose bodies can be read the story of the beginning of farming.
Moving Through Time locates the human experience in both space and time, as it relates to the cosmos. The nikisi nkondi is a Kongo figure used to resolve problems by hammering iron nails to lock away problems until some future time when that negativity can be unleashed for another purpose. Our first-world problems feel so fleeting.
Global Time reveals how Europeans were perceived when they first arrived in Africa. An exquisite Yoruba wood sculpture from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century shows a curvy and oddly sensuous Queen Victoria carved in the Yoruban style, the Queen's Britishness as much transformed by colonialism as her Nigerian subjects.
NOW looks at the present time as the place where past and future intersect. Hanging on the wall is a ghostly assemblage of driftwood carved with big round staring eyes, bodies scarred and splashed with color, bearing witness to the wounds and stains of colonialism. Here I linger.
I confess, I walked into this exhibit with a Jon Stewart joke in my head, "Yes, yes, yes. We Americans, uniquely among Earth's people, move forward in time." However, time is more complicated than that. The video installation that provided the drumbeat for our journey does so while keeping us tied to the modern urban experience in Nigeria, the sounds of the street revealing how time moves so much faster than it once did ... at the beginning of things.