Africa is so much more than wide-open spaces, desert and jungle, and all that fascinating fauna. It’s home to myriad peoples with their own languages, cultures and arts. Material Differences: Art and Identity in Africa, at the Crocker Art Museum until June 19, celebrates the work of African artists. It features about 100 pieces, ranging from primal to sophisticated, culled from private and public collections worldwide. Photos and video offer glimpses of the art used in ritualistic ceremonies.
In Africa, art plays an integral part in everyday life. Works revolve around the significant passages in life: birth, puberty, marriage and death. The spirituality connected with those passages often involves art objects that are created to protect or heal the owner. Others serve to drive away evil spirits and forces or to imbue strength and conquering power over one’s enemies. “Mask,” created by an unknown artist of the Tsogo people of Gabon, offers a face of wood carefully delineated with black and white pigments. The eyes are mere slits—a war mask to make the foe cower.
The raw materials available to African artists also affect the creations. The creator of the undated “Figure,” from the Lega people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, carved ivory into a compact figure whose sharp, jagged arms contrast with the rest of its round form. Rubbed with palm oil, the ivory glows under a rich golden-umber patina.
Beyond all the seriousness, there also is a sense of whimsy, in pieces like “Lion Ornament,” by an unknown artist of the Ashanti people in Ghana. Although this piece is cast in gold, there is a dynamic sense of movement in the curling tail, the cocked head and, especially, the big grin on this cat—reminiscent of the Cheshire feline in Alice’s dream.
Visit the Crocker at 216 O Street during regular museum hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday. Admission is $6, or free on Sundays from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. For more information, call (916) 264-5423.