SAN DIEGO — Artists of the Western world have long coveted the ingenuity of form and frank expressive power of African art. Exhibitions like "The Kimbrough African Art Collection," the newest offering of the African American Museum of Fine Arts, make any questioning of such emulation moot.
In visual terms alone, many of the about 120 works in the show at the Lyceum Theatre lobby have extraordinary presence, their robust geometries resonating across generations and oceanic divides. Add to that the deep layering of cultural and spiritual functions these objects serve and the show yields a seductive taste of African culture, especially its enviable unity of life and belief, values and expressions, religious rituals and domestic routines.
The show itself professes no theme other than the combined vision of its collectors, Dr. Jack and Mrs. Quincella Kimbrough of San Diego. Smaller excerpts from the collection have been seen at the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Man and UC San Diego. This selection of masks, combs, fetishes and various other power objects from their 50 years of collecting comes from an eclectic range of regions, peoples and eras, but the works are sympathetically grouped. Stone carvings are placed together, as are many masks and small cast-bronze objects. The strength of the show, however, lies not in the collection's depth in any one area, but in its generous scattering of stunning, idiosyncratic works.
One figurine, for instance, stands about 2 1/2 feet tall, its body formed in wood, then clothed in burlap. A dark, mud-like paste has been caked onto its arms, torso and face, blotting out its features. One arm hangs so low it comes to rest on the ground. The other is bent at the elbow and slung to the chest with rope. From the top of the head sprouts a fan of feathers and sharp quills. The label for this odd and intriguing figure reads simply, "Figure for Determining Guilt," an obscure but tantalizing caption to an object of stark, substantial presence.
Although the cryptic label here may enhance this object's mystery, in general such a lapse in identification is a shortcoming in a show filled with works whose use in societal rites and rituals goes far beyond visual intrigue. Many labels throughout the show offer spare information and context or none at all. In many other cases, however, works are identified and briefly explained, and these few words open the door to a much fuller understanding and appreciation.
Several objects, for example, are said to possess healing powers, a quality that obviously sparked great interest for Dr. Kimbrough, a dentist. One leather and cloth basket studded with cowrie shells houses a human skull. The Yoruba "House of the Head" is described as containing the "vital forces and destiny of its owner."
Another haunting object aims to rid an area of hostile spirits. The wooden female figure from Cameroon kneels while balancing a vessel upon her head. Inset into the front of the vessel is a small round mirror, which makes the vessel look like a large eye that stares directly back at its observer.
"In African thought," reads a wall text, "emphasis is placed on the collective well-being of the group rather than the individual. Art produced within such a culture has considerable importance because it helps to maintain a balance among humankind, nature and the supernatural realm. Art links the present to the past and the individual to the group."
Mediating between distinct worlds and times is perhaps the overriding, umbrella function of all of these works, but each also fulfills a more particular purpose. Small, roughly hewn stone carvings from Guinea and Sierra Leone were buried to enhance the fertility of crops. Metal figures with the insignia of tribal elders were literal status symbols, identifying those who had control over the king. One marvelous female mask with hair falling like limpid armadillo tails over her head represented the protective maiden spirit of an Igbo ancestor.
Exorcising, entertaining, celebrating, guarding and honoring are among other roles played by the often spectacular works from the Kimbrough collection. One large mask "with ribald figure" aimed to shock the mothers and sisters of adolescent boys who just graduated from a men's training camp. The mask's large head has distended blue, orange and white features and a full head of raffia hair. Atop its hat-like platform sits a smaller, painted male figure with gargantuan genitalia. The startling humor of this work is but one of a rich variety of emotional textures reflected in this excellent show.
\o7 "The Kimbrough African Art Collection" is presented by the African American Museum of Fine Arts at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza. Through Oct. 6. Hours are noon-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, Saturday; 2-5 p.m. Sunday.
CRITIC'S CHOICE: MORE MASKS AT INTERNATIONAL
A fine complement to the Kimbrough African Art collection can be seen just a few blocks south of Horton Plaza, at the International Gallery, 643 G St. The gallery's new show, "Deception and Revelation: The Art of the Mask VI," includes African tribal masks as well as contemporary responses to the traditional mask form. Dance, yam and monkey masks are here, as are antelopes and ancestors. The broad selection ranges from austere to ostentatious, elegant to electronic, wearable to wacky. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday 11:30 to 4:30 p.m.