SAN DIEGO — Viewing a museum exhibition can often be like looking through a telescope. A curator points and focuses the instrument to reveal and clarify a particular subject, be it artist, period or style.
Through Aug. 16, the San Diego Museum of Art is offering its visitors the expansive vision through a prism, rather than a narrow, telescopic gaze, with its exhibition, "Perspectives: Angles on African Art."
As its title implies, "Perspectives" presents a multifaceted look at its subject, African sculpture. The Center for African Art in New York, which organized the show under the direction of Susan Vogel, devised a highly unusual curatorial procedure to give viewers the multiplicity of viewpoints represented in the show.
"I think people are often intimidated by their lack of knowledge in looking at African art," explained Norman Skougstad, assistant curator at the center. "In this exhibition, the center is trying to encourage people to use their eyes and hopefully find these works of art approachable."
To ease access to the work, the center identified 10 different perspectives to be represented, then chose 10 individuals to give voice to these perspectives. Among those chosen were author James Baldwin; artists Nancy Graves, Romare Bearden and Iba N'Diaye; art historian Robert Farris Thompson, and anthropologist Ivan Karp.
The Center for African Art presented each of the co-curators with 100 photographs of a variety of African sculpture and crafts from private and public collections. After each participant selected 10 objects, the center added 10 new photos to the pool from which the next co-curator would choose.
In their choices, the co-curators ultimately transcend their professional categories and respond intuitively, emotionally to the works before them. The result is "Perspectives," an exhibition of 100 objects spanning 2,000 years and 55 distinct cultures, an amalgam of objects and opinions.
A statement by its selector accompanies each work, elucidating that individual's way of seeing, his/her mode of perception. Painter, sculptor and film maker Nancy Graves selected her objects for their imaginative, inventive "visual solutions." Her process relied primarily on intuition. Her choice of a Kongo seated figure with protuberant belly and one elongated arm demonstrates her interest in the way African sculpture seems to disobey conventional rules of Western art.
"It looks awkward," she comments, "it looks wrong, it looks ignorant of anatomy. And yet it works."
William Rubin, director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, echoes Graves' sentiments, choosing works whose aesthetic qualities give him a "charge in the gut." His label commentary concentrates on aspects of rhythm and design, specifically in terms of how these factors have infused the spirit and form of modern art.
He chose a particular type of mask "only because Grebo masks have a peculiar interest for the historian of modern art. It is one of the few cases where we know that the contemplation of a tribal object directly influenced a major modern artist (Picasso) in a way that the artist himself was conscious of and spoke about."
Robert Farris Thompson, professor of art history at Yale University, says he began and will end with aesthetic studies, but for now is most interested in meaning and iconology. His choice of a Kongo power figure, its torso pierced by nails and blades, testifies to his commitment to visual impact, but Thompson enhances this impact by describing the meaning of the form: "A whole legal process goes with the driving-in of the blades. In effect, a vow has been programmed in iron and sealed in saliva. If anyone breaks a vow hammered-in, the saliva tells the spirit in the figure exactly who to destroy."
Perspectives of the other co-curators differ widely. Collector David Rockefeller has a bias toward works that would complement his office or home. Writer James Baldwin eliminates this formal sense of remove from the work, instead seeing himself and his past within it. To Baldwin, African sculpture is not mysterious and exotic, but acutely real, embodying an energy, passion and persistence that define black culture's struggle for survival and recognition.
Artist Lela Kouakou, from a traditional village in the Ivory Coast, seems to encapsulate all of the co-curators' views in his expression of the Baule culture's approach to art, an "integrated African aesthetic experience which combines visual, aural and intellectual perceptions."
In this range from diaristic impressions to scholarly explanations, no perception can be right or wrong and none is complete, Vogel explains in her introduction to the show's comprehensive catalog. While Vogel admits that the artists who made the works in the show might find the co-curators' comments "ignorant" or even "preposterous," "Perspectives" serves to validate them all.
According to Steve Brezzo, director of the San Diego Museum of Art, the co-curator approach makes the show "accessible to the average visitor and elucidating to the more serious connoisseur. That encompasses the breadth of our intentions here at the museum." And, he adds, "it's a great show to read your way through."
Within its breadth and diversity, the exhibition does have a focus--on the nature of perception. How this perception feeds our appreciation and understanding is an issue explored by each co-curator, several of whom struggle to determine which is more valuable: scholarly understanding of a work's context and function or an intuitive appreciation of form.
According to this exhibition, the answer is both.