An Expanded Notion of Africa

What identifies art as African? Is there an African aesthetic, a cultural identity an artist must subscribe to, or must the artist be from or working in the physical continent? A new exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design seeks to explore these questions. “The Global Africa Project” asserts that while any one of these factors could make a work African, no single factor is necessitated. This leads to a much wider definition of Africa, and one that may need to be seen to be believed.

Walking into the exhibit one is immediately confronted with a large description of its goals. We learn that the exhibit is about finding Africa in art around the world. MAD and the exhibit curators aim to explore the various aesthetic, cultural, political, and spiritual impacts Africa has had on artists and their works. Such ambitions are extremely lofty; the exhibit is limited to two floors of the already small museum. But even with such a limited space it feels incredibly expansive.

The exhibit is not comprehensive by geographical or even thematic means, but in many ways that is the brilliance of it. Moving from piece to piece I found myself focusing on the artist’s stories and how they seemed to have clearly effected their work. Various mediums and art forms are scattered rather than clumped. A particularly memorable section of the exhibit had me moving from a series of striking portrait photographs, to an incredible dress, to my favorite piece in the entire museum, a satirical wallpaper pointing at African-american stereotypes.

Some of the other impressive work included various pieces that were created from  salvaged materials. Such pieces included a chair made out of former weaponry, and a couple of furniture pieces made out of old oil drums.

Leaving the exhibit I felt like I had a new appreciation for design as art. Not only had the exhibit expanded my notion of what Africa is, it had really made me believe that design, be it of fashion or furniture, was an art form that I had ignored far too long. Chairs, wigs, dresses, dressers, and wallpaper had done so much more to expand my cultural understanding of Africa and African art than I ever would have ever believed they could have.

CU students can see “The Global Africa Project” and the rest of the exhibits at MAD for free with Passport to New York. Just be sure to have your CUID with a validation sticker for the current semester.

Cody Holliday Haefner
Columbia College ’12
Arts Initiative Student Associate

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