Ex Africa comes beauty

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, “There’s always something new coming from Africa”, Pliny The Younger used to say. Here’s the origin of this ambitious exhibition’s title: the art, the artists, the hidden masters and the often forgotten pieces coming ex Africa, from Africa.

Nigerian art: Ife terracotta head. It may have been a portrait of a member of the Oni of Ife’s court or of the Oni himself. Country of Origin: Nigeria. Culture: Ife. Period: 12th-15th century. Place of Origin: Olokun Walode Grove, Ife. 

This exhibition might be the biggest ever organized in Italy, a vast, impressive collection of artifacts, statues, masks, bas reliefs, made from stone, terracotta, bronze, ivory and especially wood, in an artistic triumph of tactile pleasure. Art you wish you could touch.

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The collection – where the aim of opposing old stereotypes comes up more than once – is divided into nine sections. The first explores the intrinsic, artistic value of what has been long and wrongly only considered some ethnographic testament. Ritual figures and traditional masks from the most important museums of the world are on display for the viewer to discover impressive details, such as the habit of oiling repeatedly some wooden statues so that they gained a special, “sweaty” quality.

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The second section goes against yet another stereotype, the one that sees African art as the collective expression of a certain genius loci where individuality is banned. The section shows some of the artists and “schools” that made the mark.

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The third section is devoted to the art of Mali throughout the centuries, with the most important repertoire of statues from the African Middle Age, while the fourth explores the sophisticated, elegant expressions of “court art” from the ancient Benin reign and from the legendary city of Ife, with some magnificent bas reliefs made from bronze.

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The fifth section is a collection of “African-Portuguese” craft art, an ivory reminiscence of the time when the wunderkammers of princes and gentlemen of the European Renaissance and Baroque were enriched by elaborated, refined salt shakers, spoons, pyxes made by the Sapi people from Sierra Leone, the Bini from Benin and the Kongo.

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The sixth and seventh sections are dedicated to the Western’s eye towards African art: images from the first big African exhibition at Venice’s International Expo in 1922 as well as paintings from early 20th century European artists that turned their gaze towards African art as a strong source of inspiration.

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This seemed like a coherent close to an already rich exhibition, so I was surprised to see that two more sections were waiting for me to be explored. A darker room hosts the Voodoo art, with its big and small fetishes and its undeniable charm, while the final section is devoted to contemporary artists from Africa, where  Goncalo Mabunda’s chair and masks made from old weapons caught my eye.

The exhibition, dedicated to the memory of curator Ezio Bassani, is rich and ambitious, and it left me with the desire to know something more of the many cultures it portrays, as well as with the sensation to have learned something.

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 Ex Africa. Storie e identità di un’arte universale

Museo Civico Archeologico, until September 8th


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