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If 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.

Shedding Light on the Dark
By David Brickman

The 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 this up.

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 bodies.

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.


One Shot

Albany 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.

—David Brickman

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