Review: In Touch with the Spirit at The Ohio Craft Museum
Those of us who’ve grown up in the Western European tradition can perhaps be forgiven for coming to view the visual arts as something that’s separate from our everyday lives. Oh sure, some of us might (might) have original art in our homes, and others might (might) go to an exhibition, visit a gallery, or take a class at an arts center. In general though, it’s safe to say the visual arts occupy a place apart from the daily grind. Encounters with the visual arts must be sought out. You either to go to it (in the case of visiting a museum or gallery) or you bring it to you (in the case of acquiring a work of art).
The result is that for the most part we end up going about our business while occasionally taking a break to pay attention to art. It’s the default way we experience art; so much so that we no longer question it. Cultural bias is sneaky like that. After a certain point it doesn’t occur to us that there might be a different way to live with art; a way that makes art part of our lives and not separate from.
In Touch with the Spirit offers just such an alternative; not so much because it takes art out of the gallery (it doesn’t), but because it shows us cultures that do. It questions the dominant view about art’s place and reminds us that there exist different ways to incorporate art into our lives. The effect is admittedly jarring, but getting past the initial disorientation opens up a world of possibilities.
The exhibition features a selection of 20th-century works from the Southern University at New Orleans Collection of African Art displayed side be side with pieces by contemporary African American artists. As such, it provides a fascinating glimpse not just of the African arts tradition, but also how the heirs of that tradition have applied it to contemporary America life.
The truth is, it’s a bit unnatural to even see “art” (in the Western sense) when first encountering In Touch with the Spirit. Visitors entering the gallery will instead see an assortment of masks, spears, clothes, skirts, quilts, fabrics and vessels. But remember, that’s our cultural bias. To Western eyes this is a collection of utilitarian objects; the tools that people use in their everyday lives. It isn’t art. It can’t be. That’s because for us art has come to be something separate from the day to day. In the contemporary context art is void of any physical utility and valued mostly as an alternative to the everyday.
And that’s the trick. In the African tradition, the distinction between art and utility doesn’t hold sway. These objects have purpose and they have meaning. They represent the intersection of utility, shared cultural values, and aesthetics in a way that’s rarely seen in Western art. If In Touch with the Spirit does nothing else, it challenges that Western view of how art fits into our lives.
Happily though, it does much more. These are works that look back to Africa, but also wrestle with current issues of culture, identity and America’s own turbulent racial history. In that way, Napoleon Jones-Henderson’s Requiem for 1919 Chicago Race Riot isn’t just a lesson in history, it’s a way to honor the spirits of those who have come before. In a similar vein, Willis Bing Davis’s Remembrance: Middle Passage Vessel incorporates traditional African visual motifs into one of the defining chapters in African American history. Looking at more contemporary events, Davis’s Anti-Police Brutality Mask #1 plays on the idea of ritual initiation masks as they might exist within today’s African American experience.
Side by side with traditional African objects, it’s easy to appreciate the cultural heritage that’s expressed through these works. This question of heritage (or more specifically “Who’s heritage?”) is one that’s also worth considering. Those familiar with European art of the 20th-century will know that many of the most famous modernists (including Picasso, Modigliani, Brancusi, and Klee) were influenced by African art, particularly African masks. And while Napoleon Jones-Henderson made it clear in remarks at the opening reception that those artists “are entitled” to reference African art, he opined those artists are not “the heirs” to African art.
Putting provenance, semantics, and the larger question who might claim the past aside, we can say with certainty that the European modernists had little regard for the culture context of African art. Theirs was an aesthetic concern and one that put formal elements above any concern for meaning.
That’s not the case with the contemporary artists represented in this exhibition. These artists, like African art itself, join cultural and aesthetic elements together in a way that is both dazzling and full of meaning.
I’ve noted previously that we’re fortunate right now to enjoy a wide range of culture perspectives on art in Columbus, from the Wexner Center’s Via Brasil to the Pizzuti Collection’s Cuban Forever. , I’d suggest viewers add In Touch with the Spirit to this list of must see shows. The opportunity to view first hand so many pieces of African art is itself worth the trip. Add to that the the chance to connect those works with the experience of contemporary African American artists and you’ve got a collection that really does offer new perspectives. This is a first-rate exhibition that offers visitors the chance to see art (and how to live with it) in a whole new way.