It all goes back to Africa. As the source of so much that makes New Orleans unique among cities, our Afro-Caribbean heritage looms large, and the influence of Africa is evident in American music, modern art, the history of civilization and even the origin of human DNA itself. So it is surprising it took the American cultural establishment so long to recognize the importance of African art.
Despite its limited resources as a smaller regional institution, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) (1 Collins Diboll Circle, City Park, 658-4100; www.noma.org) was unusually prescient and ahead of the curve when, in 1966, NOMA’s then-director James Byrnes hired a young African art specialist named William Fagaly to assemble an important collection. With the encouragement of Byrnes’ successor, E. John Bullard, Fagaly did just that for more than four decades, making NOMA a leader in the field.
The large and varied Ancestors of Congo Square expo, on view at NOMA through July 17th, reflects Fagaly's discriminating yet restless efforts. It may come as a surprise that it originally was planned not as an exhibition but as a book. Many years in the making and produced by London’s Scala publishing house, the book premiered in May as a massive 376-page hardback featuring about 225 color illustrations and 48 essays by leading scholars. Since Congo Square was the main focus of this city’s African culture long before the museum existed, incorporating it in the title was more than appropriate. After all, Congo Square was the only place in America where slaves and free people of color could gather on Sunday afternoons to celebrate their cultural heritage, which in turn helped make New Orleans what it is today.
That said, there also is no denying the formidable exoticism of such a large exhibition of works based on the spiritual traditions of a place where nature is wildly extravagant. Like the old religions of Europe and Asia, traditional African religions were all about spiritually relating to natural forces, and in that sense, art and religion were inseparable. Both were about the divine spark that underlies all life forms, and as the renowned African art scholar Robert Farris Thompson put it, when such an art work is successful, it “transcends ordinary questions about its makeup: it is divine force incarnate.”
Because such works embody mystery and reflect forces that transcend our ordinary expectations, they resonate in unexpected ways. To look closely at many of the masks and carvings in the exhibit is to see the origins of some of Matisse and Picasso’s most emblematic works, even as a spirit mask from Ivory Coast (pictured) typifies works that presaged the blank faces of Modigliani’s nudes.
The pristine geometry of a Congo Mboko figure from Katanga province suggests the origins of Art Deco while, closer to home, the figures topping a memorial staff from Benin strikingly resemble a second line parade. Such visual linkages — including an elaborately beaded Yoruba costume from Nigeria that eerily recalls the Mardi Gras Indian suits exhibited at NOMA during Prospect.1 — are abundant, and it seems safe to say that without those vital influences, both modern art and New Orleans culture would be vastly different, and far less interesting.