Yesterday my day was free so I decided to head on over to The Phillips Collection. They are currently hosting a special exhibition Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens. The collection is a combination of African artifacts and the photography inspired by these pieces. The purpose of this show is to illustrate the influence that the photography had on the understanding of African “art.” Why the quotations, these artifacts have not always bee seen as art pieces. They are functional, spiritual vessels for ritual in most cases. As westerners we tend to label anything that looks more than ordinary as art. I am not saying that I don’t do the same thing, but it is important to realize that in the minds of the cultures that create these statues or trinkets, they are not art as we define it. That being said we can leave the western/non-western definition behind for the remainder of this post.
The exhibit takes you through the documentary photo, to that of the surrealists, and then into the world of fashion. Fashion?? That’s was exactly my thoughts. The initial photographs are useful in that they provided a medium from which the western world could see what all this african art was all about. simple pictures of various spiritual statues. Accessibility was the key for this collection of photographs. I have no problem with this. Where things start to get a little interesting is with the surrealist photographs. Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur.
The image that caught my eye in this context was of two individuals with traditional african masks, in suits sitting on a couch. To me this brings up the issue of cultural preservation. I wonder under what circumstances these masks were acquired and then utilized in this non-traditional fashion. Did the artist understand the significance of these pieces when posing these individuals, or did he simply see african masks on white business men as expressing some sort of contradiction. What are the cultural implication of using functional art in this way??
The final room of the exhibition is dedicated to the way in which african clothing was translated into the world of high fashion. It argues that this was yet another way for the western world to be exposed to the world of Africa. It shows a series of Man Ray’s muse Kiki in a variety of African headress. These photographs take the pieces out of their cultural context, and in so doing begs the question whether they provide a true understanding of the pieces themselves, but perhaps that was not the intention.
Overall the exhibition itself is an excellent collection of the photography of the time and a very comprehensive one at that. It does bring up a lot of questions about motivations of the time, circumstances in which the works were created, and of course the cultural implications of these. The best exhibitions always leave you asking questions and that is what I love about art. Yes it’s nice to look at, and sometimes its great to just get lost in a painting, but when you walk out of a museum, or gallery and your mind is racing with questions and ideas– those are the moments when the arts reach us the most.