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African Art Exhibit Hopes to Give New Perspective on Tribal Art - 2004-07-17

Organizers of a new exhibition of African art want Americans to know the continent's artistic expression consists of more than tribal masks and figures. From VOA's New York bureau, Maura Fogarty takes a look at the diverse styles and themes in the exhibit titled, "African Art Is..."

From Bwa ceremonial masks to modern abstract paintings by contemporary artists, to illustrations with political themes, the paintings and objects on display at the New York exhibit highlight an Africa with which many Americans are unfamiliar.

For many in the United States, the perception of African art often starts and ends with tribal art. Jean Endicott, a collector of African art for more than 30 years, says, even what Americans know of tribal art is flawed.

"I think, unfortunately, that mainstream America has seen lower quality materials, what we call airport art - art that is carved for export and not the traditional tribal art that was actually used in the community," she says. "What I like about the museum and the show like this is it starts exposing people to what it can really be like and how beautiful it can be."

The Museum for African Art is organizing the exhibition in conjunction with its 20th anniversary. More than 75 works from 14 African countries are on display. Jeremy Vogel, who is deputy director of the museum, says he wants visitors to see the diversity and vibrancy of African art.

"The sort of classical view of African art as it is in books and [as] it is taught in a lot of schools is that it's over, it's passed. It disappeared when Westerners arrived in Africa and killed it," he explains. "And we wanted to make the point that it is still very much alive although perhaps in different forms."

Those different forms are arranged according to several main themes, exploring the spiritual, historical, political, local and even global aspects of African artistic expression.

Organizers are displaying the works of art in the most unlikely of places - the lobby of Swiss bank, UBS's, headquarters in New York City. Colin Thomson, who is director of the UBS Art Gallery says showcasing the artwork in such a way helps it reach a wider audience.

"There's an opportunity here where someone might not go out to visit the museum but they would definitely be coming through the lobby of this building. We want to engage the people who are very interested in the field and, at the same time, we want to engage people who know nothing about the field," he explains.

According to some visitors to the exhibition, that attempt seems to be working.

"I'm surprised by the diversity. It also looks surprising good in a bank lobby," commented one visitor. "It's nicely presented. It's well done. It alludes to the fact that there's other different types of work. It's obviously just the tip of the iceberg."

For the artists themselves, the opportunity to reach a more global audience is a chance to promote not just the arts within their own countries, but also to educate the rest of the world on the issues facing their homelands.

One of the works on display is from South African artist Thabiso Phokompe, who has lived in the United States since 1999. He says that living and working in the United States allows him to be a cultural ambassador for his country.

"South of Africa is a big country and there are so many of us. We need more resources, we need more galleries. We need the world to see that," he says. "They couldn't see us by just being in south Africa, (I) had to be here. The fact is the United States is where the world will discover you. I needed to be here for people to know Southern Africa, otherwise nobody knows what is happening in Southern Africa. And I'm more of an ambassador of the arts and culture of my country."

Museum officials say in the two decades since they first opened their doors, they have seen perceptions changing slowly and a growing awareness of what African art really i