Saturday, December 29, 2012

African Art: Heads and Masks

I have often written about African masks and why I find them so interesting and appealing. At our recent visit to the St. Louis Art Museum, I made it a point to look at the African collection, and to try to read some of the notes available about the items there. Africa is a huge continent with a wide variety of cultures and peoples, a long history, and much that's been lost, but much more that's preserved in what I see as a rather mysterious state.

The three heads shown above and in detail at left, for example, are 18th or 19th century post-mortem portraits of upper-class individuals from Ashan, Ghana, in a tradition that European visitors observed from the 17th to 20th centuries, according to the accompanying documentation. The heads would be displayed outside the village, where they would be "periodically visited and honored." I wonder what that meant, and what the heads meant to the people in the villages. These little hints never quite present as much as I wish they would.
"Our knowledge of African antiquity is still developing," explains one general-information placard. "The existing material record reveals cultures that produced sophisticated and compelling explorations of the human condition. ... The Sahel, a horizontal band stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea just south of the Sahara, has a long history as a trading nexus of goods, peoples, and ideas. Over the course of the first millenium BC, the region developed rice cultivation, sub-Saharan Africa's earliest cities, and important iron-producing centers."
Each area of Africa, each set of people, each river valley -- all seem to have equally long and complex histories, yet most museums have only a small number of artifacts that represent an entire people's history, and rarely are there really old items -- the St. Louis museum has a few of them, but I didn't photograph them. Below are a few pictures of other masks and sculptures of heads in the museum.

The museum does not have the name of the artists for a single one of these heads and masks, though they do seem to know the names of the rites or the special ceremonial societies for which the masks were used. For example, the Suku mask below was made for initiation ceremonies, during which young boys from a village learned about farming and hunting. The mask personified village ancestors, according to the label.

Mende Mask, Sierra Leone, Early 20th C.
Baule Mask, Je Society, Cote d'Ivoire, Early 20th C.

Suku Mask, Congo, Late 19th C.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

St.Louis Art Museum

Yesterday we spent several hours at the St.Louis Art Museum. I have loved this art museum since I was a child when it was the only one I had ever seen. The statue of St.Louis on his horse has greeted museum goers since the museum was founded, I presume around the time of the St.Louis World's Fair. Here we found him, against the winter sky.

The large entrance hall (not as large as in my memories) displays fewer statues than I remember from the past. Above is one of the most impressive of them, a work by Marcus Lupertz from 1986 -- so it wasn't one that I would have seen as a child.

We began with the temporary exhibit of works by Federico Barocci, borrowed from many world-famous collections, and especially from his native Urbino. I suspect that if I had seen one or two of his paintings in a museum in Italy (as in fact I probably have done) I wouldn't have found him remarkable. However, the exhibit highlighted his method of creating compositions by showing numerous studies and drawings as he did them for each work. The result was captivating. I may write more about this experience later.

Looking across the Entrance Hall Towards the Entrance to the Barocci Exhibit

After lunch in the little museum cafe, we continued with some African art, which I may also describe in greater detail later. The man on a horse (above) is a puppet from Mali, made in the 1960s. As so often happens with tribal works, the museum doesn't know the name of the artist. I have heard that people in cultures that made such objects often did know the names of the artists, but that the collectors never bothered to ask, though of course I know nothing detailed about this example. Ruby is visible behind the puppet through the display case at right. We continued with a brief walk through a few other galleries.

Van Gogh: Factories at Clichy

Van Gogh: Detail of figures in Factories at Clichy

Here are Ruby, Jay, and Len in front of a Monet water lily painting. The museum owns many fabulous masterpieces; of course we had time for not much besides the two exhibits we chose. And now I'm on the way home from St.Louis, and it might be a while before I return to this old favorite museum.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Lafayette, Indiana Art Museum

Recent pots and weavings from collectors in the Lafayette area

Small Zuni Olla

Weaving by Ruth Yabney

Taos Olla by Pam Luan Hauer

Zuni Lizard Pot by Anderson Peynetsa

We've been shopping in Southwest galleries and at several pueblos near Santa Fe for around 20 years, as have these collectors. However, we haven't bought very many pots (nor any weavings). Seeing this collection brought back the fun of looking. The museum displays were very effective, simple, and well-lit.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Chanukah Wrap-up

Last night was the eighth night, so it's over for this year. I hope you had a great celebration!

Monday, December 10, 2012

We are prepared

John Hodgman reminds me that we could have had many reasons for having a natural-gas backup generator installed today. We thought we were preparing for brief power failures. Maybe it will help us if the Mayans were right, though Hodgman discouraged me from that hope by mentioning the 1000 foot blood-wave that will obviously flood all of Ann Arbor and surrounding areas, no doubt including our generator. We have not and do not plan to purchase 2 years worth of groceries, either. We just want our pipes to remain non-frozen and our Trader Joe's gyozas and ice cream to remain actually frozen if there's an outage. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Istanbul and The Dervish House

My book club usually reads conventional novels, memoirs, and nonfiction. This year, we decided to choose a science-fiction book, based on the recommendations of friends of some of the members. We picked the highly respected 2010 book The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.*

I volunteered to lead the discussion next Monday -- my discussion questions:

  1. The Dervish House takes place in Istanbul 2027, and involves many futuristic technology innovations, like nanotech pills that change one’s brain and flying transformer robots that can be operated by a child as well as by police spies. McDonald also does a lot with character development and local color.
    How would you compare the characters and atmosphere to those in the novels we more commonly read? Were they convincing/appealing/memorable?

    Local color: view of the Bosphorous from our hotel balcony, 2006.
  2. The novel is structured into five chapters titled MONDAY though FRIDAY. In each chapter is a series of quick events with constantly changing characters. (Characters featured in the sketches include Necdet, Can Durukan, Georgios Ferentinou, Adnan, Ayse, Leyla; also at least 20 minor characters.) Sketches of historic events and flashbacks to the characters’ lives are interspersed. Also, background on the varied ethnic identities, the city, and lots of deal-making.
    Did you find this kaleidoscope of impressions and personalities challenging or enjoyable to read?
    Note: I conclude that this presentation is really complicated since several reviewers I checked got details wrong!
  3. Each character seems to have his or her own trajectory. Ayse’s search for the “Mellified Man” seems to be most central at first, but she achieves her goal around 2/3 of the way through and it turns out to be secondary. Suspense increases a lot after this plot element is finished, as Necdet is kidnapped and the boy Can Durukan and his friend the economist Georgios Ferentinou hone in on what’s really going on.
    Did you find this effective? Did the ending seem well supported by the buildup to it? Or too surprising?
  4. McDonald used a lot of trendy science – nanotech, robotics, neuroscience, non-linear science, economic modeling, statistics, etc. Also politics, religious fanaticism, nationalism, etc.
    Did it intrigue you/get your interest/impress you or did you find it unappealing in some way?
  5. The unifying theme of the book is that every important character lives or works in a 19th century building called the Dervish House.
    How did the author use this, and was it enough to bring together all the disparate elements?

* The Dervish House was nominated for two major SF awards (a Hugo and an Arthur C. Clarke award), and won two other awards (British Science Fiction Award and Campbell award). We usually use prepared questions but I did not find any on the web.