Perspective on: Inspirations of African art

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

Scholarly and artistic focus: An art historian and practicing artist from Nigeria who has had more than 35 one-person and group exhibitions around the world, Okeke-Agulu's research focuses on classical, modern and contemporary African and African diaspora art history. He is the co-curator of the exhibition"Life Objects: Rites of Passage in African Art," currently at the Princeton University Art Museum. His most recent book,"Contemporary African Art Since 1980," co-written with art curator and historian Okwui Enwezor, was published this fall.

How did the exhibition"Life Objects: Rites of Passage in African Art" (open until Jan. 24) come about?

After I designed the syllabus for"Art and Lifecycle in Africa," a freshman seminar I am teaching this fall, I approached the museum with a request for a precept show. Normally, this is a modest exhibit designed to allow students to engage more directly and intimately with art objects relevant to the course. As it turned out, the museum enthusiastically supported my plan for a show consisting mostly of important works borrowed from the Smithsonian and from some of the most respected private collections in the Northeast.

You describe the pieces as"life objects." What does that mean?

They are life objects because in their original contexts they were used in important rituals associated with the affirmation of individual and communal life in Africa. Yes, they are undoubtedly powerful art objects; but human lives depended on their efficacy as ritual objects.

The 23 pieces come from traditional societies in various parts of Africa over a similar time frame of the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. Putting the pieces together, what is their significance?

A majority of traditional African art in museum collections dates from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, which coincides with the period of colonization of the continent by European nations. My co-curator Holly Ross [an independent scholar] and I selected objects that represented the best examples of their genre. But the idea was also to include objects from diverse African cultures as a way to emphasize on the one hand the cultural complexity of the continent, and the other the ineluctable link between ritual and art in Africa.

You are an artist yourself. What do you create?

Earlier, I made wood sculpture and mixed media sculptural installations, but I mostly make drawings and paintings that range from intensely political themes during the 1990s, to more personal and even intimate subjects since 1998, when I moved to the U.S. from Nigeria...

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