2003-12-19 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance
by Susan Hartenstein
From The Artists Studio Rockaway Artists Alliance by Susan Hartenstein

Wangechi Mutu Machinehead from the Fungus serie Wangechi 2003. Ink, acrylic and collage on mylar. Approximately 17 x 11 in. Courtesy of the artist.Wangechi Mutu Machinehead from the Fungus serie Wangechi 2003. Ink, acrylic and collage on mylar. Approximately 17 x 11 in. Courtesy of the artist.

The holidays provide a perfect time to explore places with which you may be unfamiliar or which you may wish to revisit. In September, the Museum for African Art relocated from downtown Manhattan to 36-01 43rd Avenue in Long Island City, making our already diverse borough culturally and artistically richer. The traditions of African art are dynamic and fascinating. Most people are aware that those traditions have influenced Western art through artists that include Picasso. But contemporary African artists continue to create their own new styles and languages within a global context. The Museum for African Art presents the public with both these streams.

Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora, in the museum’s Main Gallery, features the work of twelve artists born in Africa, who are living and working in the United States and various European countries that include Belgium, the Netherlands and the U.K. The exhibition explores local and international, African and Western influences – geographic, cultural, emotional. The artwork generated by the individual experiences of each of the twelve artists living within the global African Diaspora, collectively creates an intimate view of this international phenomenon and helps define that phenomenon. Critic Barbara Pollack, in Artnews referred to contemporary African artists as "The Newest Avant-Garde" because their work explores sensibilities beyond politics and is redefining African art. Looking Both Ways presents a diverse range of styles and media from emerging artists as well as artists established in the African art community who may not be known by a wider audience. A 192-page publication accompanying the exhibition features essays and interviews with scholars who explore additional theoretical issues.

Twins have long been the subject of interest and even mystery, in many cultures. The Yoruba peoples of Nigeria associate twins with divinity and affluence. Interestingly, this culture has one of the highest rates of multiple births in the world, yet also has a high rate of infant and child mortality. In reaction to these two factors, the Yoruba have developed rituals that venerate twins and their divine powers. Ibeji (or ere ibeji) are small figures, commissioned by parents who have lost one or both twins, to represent the spirits of the dead children. Doubly Blessed: The Ibeji Twins of Nigeria, located in the museum’s smaller Focus Gallery, is an exhibition of these graceful sculptures and this fascinating tradition.

The ibeji do not depict the deceased as children, but as healthy adults. The mother, or the closest living relative, cares for these representational children as if they were alive, performing such functions as bathing, feeding and dressing them. These functions must be carried out to appease the gods, since the spirits of twins are believed to become deities (orisha). This practice also guarantees that those left on earth will enjoy a peaceful and prosperous life and that the deceased twin will not call the living siblings to the spirit world.

Doubly Blessed curator George Chemeche began to investigate the formal qualities and ritual function of the ibeji forty years ago, when he was first impressed by their simple elegance and serenity. These figures have been created by Yoruba artists, over the years, in a great variety of sculptural forms and expressions. Chemeche is the editor of Ibeji: The Cult of Yoruba Twins, a comprehensive and definitive new book that explores this spiritual and artistic tradition of the Yoruba of Nigeria.

Looking Both Ways and Doubly Blessed run through March 1, 2004. The Museum for African Art is located in the same building as the temporary space for the Isamu Noguchi Museum and is three blocks away from MoMA QNS. It is dedicated to bringing the beauty, power and richness of African art to the public. Active outreach and interaction with the community is achieved through a variety of public and educational programs. For more information, visit www.africanart.org.

Perfect for a visit this gift-giving holiday season is RAA’s "Gifted: A Holiday Member Exhibition". It presents a diverse collection of artworks. Paintings, photographs, jewelry, a mosaic jewelry box, a colored pencil drawing, limited edition prints, a quilt, a sewn jacket and more. From the charming to the hypnotic. From beach glass wall hangings to haunting alabaster sculpture. You are guaranteed to find a treasure at sTudio 6, Fort Tilden. "Gifted" runs through January 11. Gallery hours are Saturdays, 12-5 and Sundays 1-4. Admission is free.

The Rockaway Artists Alliance expresses its deepest sympathies to Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer and her family on the loss of her father, Alex Fagin.

In this time of celebrating each other and what we hold dearest, RAA wishes a peaceful holiday season to all.

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