Accessibility links

Breaking News

New African Art Exhibit Showcases Contemporary Art

The term "African art" may summon up images of tribal masks and kente cloth -- traditional arts passed down almost unchanging through generations. But as a new exhibit in Washington illustrates -- African art can also be very modern.

Carolyn Weaver has more on African art – old and new.

The show at the National Museum of African Art includes works in both traditional and new media by nine contemporary African artists. Allyson Purpura is one of the curators:


"This is the museum's collection, and it's great to have an entire exhibit based on one's own collection, particularly of contemporary African work, which has been underrepresented."

Nigerian-born sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp has several pieces in the show, including "Church Ede," a bed for lying in state, surrounded by mourners.


"This commemorates the death of her father, and the mourners are standing around the body, who is represented by the depressions in the mattress."

At times, the bed shakes as an electrical current passes through it.


"And the handkerchiefs turn to create a current of air above the body, representative of her father's spirit from here to the afterlife."

Seven of the nine artists are South African, including William Kentridge, whose charcoal animations are at once darkly political and poetic.


"On one piece of paper, he draws an image, he photographs it, and then he erases part of the image and then he photographs it and adjusts the image. He erases his lines, but they leave traces, and the leaving behind of these traces is to him also very symbolic of memory. They leave a pathway of time."

Senegalese artist Iba N'Diaye, has lived for many years in Paris, where he fell in love with American jazz in the 1940s.


"He's one of the earliest modern African artists that we have represented in our museum, but also in the history of modern and contemporary African art. He did a series of great jazz players -- this one is "Homage to Bessie Smith."

"African Forms" is the title of this series by sculptor Jeremy Wafer. Their egg-like shapes and regularity make them seem like objects found in nature - while the patterns on some refer both to designs on ceramic pots and scarification marks on people.

The signature image of the show is a photograph by Zwelethu Mthethwa of a South African migrant worker and his son, among the thousands who live in temporary homes made of whatever scraps they can find. Although Mr. Mthethwa's photographs show great poverty, in their dignity and warmth they resemble this very different piece by the same artist, working in pastel.

As co-curator Allyson Purpura says, the show aims to demonstrate that there is no single way to be a modern African artist - or to look at African art.