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Pattern Recognition

Reading The Marks in Final Installment of BMA's Heady African Art Series

Mitro Hood
FOLLOW THE SIGNS: An installation view of Mary Evans' "Blighty, Guinea, Dixie" and "Schema."

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 6/18/2008

Meditations on African Art: Pattern

At the Baltimore Museum of Art through Aug. 17

Pattern was the original non-verbal language. It remains the way in which we read nature, gauging weather by cloud formations and migratory patterns, or time by solar and lunar systems. We track unwanted interlopers and diseases by their distinctive prints or markings, or pique our superstitions through the arrangement of tea leaves and palm lines. At the Baltimore Museum of Art, Pattern is the conclusion of the Meditations on African Art series, a didactic introduction into the attributes and function of African art and artifact.

As BMA associate curator of African art Karen Milbourne's final project before leaving to take a position at the Smithsonian, Pattern shows itself to be her punch line. While Pattern rides on the heels of the two previous installations, Light and Color, without pattern we would likely not be able to discern the subtle distinctions made through light or color. Pattern is what accentuates the planes that light discloses or shadow mystifies. Color apart may be vast, vivid, and steadfast, or atmospheric and decreasing, but it is stationary--a captive of its own terms--without the agitations and impositions of pattern.

Stationary is not what African art is about in the least. In much of African cultural tradition, pattern equals living story. For first-time gallery visitors this might be most evident in the remarkable elephant tusk that commands a focal place in the exhibition. The intricately carved ivory suggests European influences in its illustrative design. It is a good starting point to fix an awareness of pattern as narrative, before moving toward a private language less easily accessed. In its depiction of an upward spiraling path, a sense of evolution is concluded from the carved tusk's tiny ascending human and animal figures. It isn't clear if this is one individual or several making the pilgrimage through existence, but they, or he, does begin and end as a somewhat fetal-looking amphibian form. As this sculpture originated in the Congo, and is of an arced, conical shape, perhaps it relates to this region's archetypal depiction of Bumba's Creation of the Earth, gorging from the Immortal's mouth to circulate outward the contents of the living world.

A reliquary component in other carved-wood figures is an important aspect to notice. The Bembe standing male figures, with their flexed knees proposing a ready stance, have often been gifted with the breath of an ancestor to instill them with power and a faith in continued family investment from another realm. So much of what expresses from the internal body--breath, voice, birth, and even vomit--becomes a sacred consideration.

Many examples of ceremonial weaponry are presented for the consideration of their fascinating carved or inlaid handles and blades. Gabon knives, Kuba daggers, and Congolese swords were initially crafted to be much too exquisite and precious for warfare, instead signifying the nobility, elevated status, or prowess of their owner. Curatorial text suggests that a few would likely have been used for gaming or divination practices, with some given enhanced potency through medicinal herbs or a talisman placed inside the handle.

The exhibition's central premise is that pattern is the external indication of unseen forces and anomalous essences. The wooden masks, buffalo-hide shields, and figurative sculpture, decorated with raised geometric designs, may even serve as surrogates for the ornamentally scarred skin of important ancestors, as much as designs on living skin summon up the ancient mystical and otherworldly configurations on the masks. It is a continuum of hierarchical acknowledgement and ritual designation.

Additionally, Pattern is particularly rich with the wondrous textiles of the continent's varied and highly disparate styles. From the full-body, vegetable-fiber Mwana wa Pwevo performance mask, woven into a complex strata of crosses and diamonds, to the embroidered or appliquéd and ornamented Kuba garments or their cut pile raffia textiles, to the Asante's dye-stamped, grid layout Adinkra cloth, this trilogy-concluding exhibition evidences the subtlety of range in method, mystique, and meaning secreted within the active language of pattern.

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