Although the Betye Saar and Congolese exhibits were independently planned, their juxtaposition couldn’t offer a more intriguing view of African art both inside and outside of Africa. Visitors have a unique opportunity to examine culture’s indelible role in the history and development of African art.
Helmut F. Stern, a long-standing benefactor of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, donated the entirety of the Congolese exhibit. According to UMMA, the collection is considered one of the most important compilations of African art in the United States. To head curator Jim Wyman, the 23 piece Congolese exhibit, running through June 2006, is meant to “celebrate a tremendous gift.” A larger exhibit of 90 pieces will be displayed when the museum’s renovation project is completed.
The Betye Saar exhibit, running until Jan. 8, is the culmination of nearly five years of planning. Saar is considered one of the foremost contemporary black artists, and has been producing critical work since her emergence in the 1960s. This extensively planned exhibition focuses primarily on her use of photography in “assemblage” art, which is constructed with the use of several mediums, including sculpture and painting.
The Art of the Congo exhibit provides a fascinating look at the art of various cultures from Western and Central Africa, with iconic representations of religious figures as well as various ceremonial objects. The displayed works barely scratch the surface of the region’s diversity and serve well as a teaser for the future exhibition. The first piece of the exhibit, an untitled standing figure from the Songye culture, consists of wood, copper, metal tacks, snakeskin, fiber and cloth. The statue promotes fertility and provides protection against mortal and spiritual enemies and is a testament to the multiple functions of religious art.
The themes of ancestral devotion and the spiritual empowerment of figures remain strong throughout the short exhibit and lay a crucial base for the Saar gallery. The object entitled “Figure (Nkisi Nduda),” from the Yombe culture, is a powerful link to the Saar exhibit. The figure’s midsection holds a mirror that UMMA describes as serving as a “medium through which diviners can seek answers to problematic question(s).” Saar’s art can be viewed in this same way. The artist explained in her own words that she is “intrigued with combining the remnants of memories, fragments of relics.” Her assemblages of found objects immediately recall the viewer to the Congolese sculptures constructed from various materials.
Wyman clarified that Saar’s interest is in the “combination of culture and the forming of African American identity,” clearly reflected in her racially charged “Black Crows in the White Section Only.” The piece passionately links cultural metaphors with simplistic visual representations, one of many such pieces in the exhibit. In Saar’s words, “My purpose in creating these works is to remind us about the struggles of African Americans – I feel that, however painful, there is honor in re-presenting the past.”
Wyman described Saar’s work as addressing “current issues of race and race relations.” But some of her work goes beyond that, such as “I’ll Bend but I will not Break.” This sculpture references issues of race as well as gender in a raw and emotive way. It consists of a vintage ironing board and iron connected by a manacle. Saar uses a newly laundered white sheet with a neatly embroidered “KKK” as a startling backdrop. Imprinted across the board is the infamous diagram of the slave ship Brookes as well as a photo of a black woman self-confidently engaging the viewer with her stare. Saar’s attunement to cultural identity also extends to other minorities. “The Occidental Tourist” and “La Bonita” portray a sentimental understanding of Asian and Hispanic cultures respectively. Saar explains that “as an African American, I have always been interested in so-called Third World cultures