only you could see these colors: Margaret Courtney-Clarke’s
photo of Silla Camara applying fo khoule—a paste of ground
white limestone and water—to the mud wall of her house
in Djajibinni, Mauritania.
Light on the Dark
Art of African Women: Empowering Traditions
New York State Museum, through Feb. 27
Is it possible to understand another culture—another world—through
its art? This is the challenge presented by an intriguing
but difficult exhibition at the New York State Museum titled
The Art of African Women: Empowering Traditions.
Consisting of well over 100 color photographs by Namibian-born,
white photojournalist Margaret Courtney-Clark along with numerous
objects and artifacts collected by Courtney-Clarke and the
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public
Library, the show reveals much—but conceals even more. And
it does this in such a busy, almost overwhelming manner, as
to place the viewer at a disadvantage.
This dilemma is encapsulated in the opening didactic panels,
where comparative maps of Africa point out the relative size
of the African continent versus Europe and North America (Africa
is many times larger than both) in contrast to traditional
Western maps that have always reversed that relationship.
But the potential misapprehension of Africa as a single culture
remains—even in the show’s title—despite the fact that this
is the furthest thing from the truth. Imagine, alternatively,
an exhibition titled The Art of European Women (pretty
much unthinkable), and you understand that I’m not making
That said, Courtney-Clark’s mix of journalism and cultural
anthropology makes for a powerful experience of several distinct
African cultures, divided into three categories—West, North
and South—along with a fourth section devoted to children.
The first section, incorporating people and creations from
the West African nations of Mali, Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal
and Gambia, shows an emphasis on the sculptural forms of clay
houses and the brilliantly colored patterns that women apply
to them. Their style mixes animal imagery with abstract design
in a beautiful and natural way (this also appears in wooden
and clay artifacts) and is augmented in many of the photographs
by the vivid scarves and dresses the women wear while painting.
In the second section, we move to North Africa and the Berbers
of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. These “free people,” with
their nomadic traditions, confine their decorative arts to
more portable objects such as ceramic pots, metal jewelry
and, especially, weavings. Here, the photographs emphasize
people, as the art they create is so frequently worn on their
Courtney-Clark emerges as a very talented portraitist in this
section, moving in close at times on tattooed and hennaed
skin in addition to the elaborate wearables. One of the strongest
pictures in this group features the dancelike gesture of a
woman in black and white stripes posed against a cracked mud
wall background as she spins a thin strand of wool.
Next, we move on to South Africa, and the core of the show,
a tribe known as the Ndebele. Epitomized by a matriarchal
artist named Francina Ndimande, these women create elaborate,
graphically sophisticated murals over the entirety of their
villages, inside and out, while living a tradition in manner
and dress that modernity is trying to crowd out of existence.
This includes the wearing of neck-extending metal collars
as well as metal leg and wrist cuffs that never come off;
doughnut-shaped, beaded hoop collars; similarly made leg hoops,
in great stacks; and beaded headbands, leather skirts and
aprons that resemble American Indian designs.
Though these costumes were intended for ceremonial use, Ndimande
and some other Ndebele women have adopted the custom for daily
use. Whether worn by the women and girls in the pictures or
displayed in showcases, these creations are among the most
beautiful, fascinating and “other” in the show. It is hard
to believe that someone could spend their daily existence
dressed up like a sort of spirit doll, but they do. More amazingly,
they also create multicolored wall murals in these getups,
as shown in a 20-minute video.
Yet it is the murals that impress the most, and one quickly
understands why Courtney-Clark has placed the emphasis here.
In photo after photo, brilliant color combinations, set off
by ruler-straight black lines (all painted freehand) expose
a distinct style with marvelous personal variations in motif.
While one artist may borrow design elements from her feisty
chickens, another is inspired by the razor blade, of all things.
Most striking in these pictures is the imposition of modern
elements, both in the work itself and in the settings. For
example, one photo shows a wall with a gorgeous jet plane
design; another presents a family group sitting in their bare
feet and brass leg cuffs behind an equally brassy chrome coffee
table; and another depicts a scrappy, low village in the shadow
of a nuclear plant’s cooling towers.
Here, too, Courtney-Clark displays her strength in portraiture—among
several transcendent pieces are a closeup of a new bride named
Anna Ntali and a monumental vision in blue of Betty Mahlanga
in blue-beaded neck hoop and jaunty blue beret against a clear
blue sky. There are also a few fashion shots featuring the
Somali supermodel Iman, taken on assignment for Town and
Country magazine—to my mind a trivialization of the subject
and an unnecessary inclusion in the show.
But the inclusion of the video, a BBC production that Courtney-Clark
consulted on, is critical. There, in their own words, the
Ndebele artists explain what they do and why—and the joy on
their faces speaks for itself.
Also eloquent are interpretations by the poet (and frequent
Courtney-Clark collaborator) Maya Angelou, who gets right
to the heart of the matter when she, perhaps inadvertently,
addresses the difference between the Western minds that collect,
curate and admire this art and the minds of the people that
create it and pass it on to their children, rather than worry
about its future in a museum. Angelou says that she thinks
these women are saying this when they paint: “It is enough
that I made beauty in my life. . . . Beauty is such a great
part of me that I can create it on the spot.”
It would be hard, in this day and age, to imagine an American
or European artist getting away with that!
The final section of the show features children’s toys along
with child-centered photographs, and once again the best among
them exploit Courtney-Clark’s great sensitivity in making
portraits. One group of shots depicts an Ashanti boy from
Ghana who is learning to weave the famously beautiful Kente
cloth of that culture. Others show small children learning
to paint with chicken-feather brushes.
One exits the show with a feeling of hope after seeing the
next generation of artists on their way up. And, being at
the state museum, the show will reach the next generation
of kids here, as well. It’s likely some of them will be inspired
by their contemporaries so far away.
Heritage Area Visitors Center, through Dec. 17
Photographer Shaina Marron, a mainstay of the
Albany Underground Artists group, has conceived
and organized this collection of photographs by
25 area shooters who each picked just one shot
to submit to the show. While the exhibit space
is a bit disjointed, the groupings work well together.
As with any show of this nature, the work runs
a broad gamut, from the commercial (Carrie Jeeves’
glitzy, straightforward Candy Corn) to
the recycled (Ingrid Staats’ untitled black-and-white
print of plastic soldiers) to the humorous (Mark
Gregory’s quasi-monumental Baghead) to
the bizarre (PRVRT’s Happy as a Pig in Sherbert).
There are a number of strong individual pieces,
including a glowing, almost otherworldy pair of
morning glories by Marianne Kendrick; Samantha
O’Keefe’s sexy, almost abstract Fishnets;
an appealingly honest portrait by Rick Poston;
and Mary Spinelli’s quietly sinister Machine
by Airport. Local favorites Michael Farrell,
Robert Gullie and Leif Zurmuhlen have each also
provided a top-quality image.
My hat’s off to Marron for putting in the effort
and creativity to mount this fun showcase—and
for having the restraint not to put one of her
own pictures into it.