Cycles: African Life Through Art

By , csmonitor.com

While art exhibits are most commonly arranged around such themes as period, movement, or specific masters, it can also be edifying to view works in their cultural context - mixing a bit of anthropology with the art appreciation. And if you're deciding on a cultural framework, you can't go bigger than the entire sweep of life - from birth through adulthood and eventually, beyond. (Perhaps occupying a new position as someone else's 'ancestor.')

Cycles: African Life Through Art views its subject through the lens of life and at the end, leaves the visitor back where they started, '...and knowing the place for the first time.'

Hosted by the Indianapolis Museum of Art (and a practical example of the advantages of Web companions for physical exhibits), Cycles remains accessible while the corporeal museum awaits the construction of a new home. Launched last year, and a current nominee for a South by Southwest Interactive Festival Web Award, the site features artifacts from ancient to modern, and draws the visitor in with a vibrantly colored splash page, and an introduction that uses animation, text and music to outline the exhibition's intent. Once loaded, the menu page displays the four topics around which the exhibition is arranged; Ancestors, Youth, Adulthood, and Leadership.

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As an exercise in design, the creators at Terra Incognita have done an admirable job of keeping the circular/cycles theme intact while dealing with a rectangular computer screen. The categories are separated into the four quadrants of the browser window, around a central disk with additional links to an exhibition Gallery and Glossary (complete with audio clips to demonstrate proper pronunciation of unfamiliar terms).

Choose one of the four main sections, and that quadrant enlarges to occupy most of the screen, but leaves the edges of adjacent categories visible at the frame's borders - which encourages cyclical exploration, and even a return to section one after having viewed the entire exhibition. The central disk always remains visible (to anchor the changing quadrants, and to allow an immediate return to the home page), while concentric arcs of links at the inner and outer edges of the screen maintain access to site-wide and category-specific contents.

In terms of that content, all four sections open with a brief introduction and a relevant proverb. ("An adult squatting sees farther than a child on top of a tree.") Each section has three or four 'chapters' arranged around the central disk, displaying one or two interactive artifacts linked to detail views, text background and audio commentaries by Naeemah Jackson, a curator of African art at the IMA who also wrote the site's content. In the outside corner of the frame, a thumbnail map of the African continent displays the geographic origin of the current artifact, while a Zoom link will open a new page with the option of viewing the object in extreme detail.

For those who want to step out of the circle, the site also offers more direct ways to explore the exhibit. Clicking on the map of Africa or the Gallery link (both always available while exploring the four quadrants), reveals all the artifacts available in the online exhibit on a single page, which can be either highlighted by region or displayed as a complete collection. Each of these artifacts can then be opened into their own page, where visitors have access to text descriptions, and the ability to zoom into the object to extraordinary levels of detail. (The maximum magnification for an image of a "Sowei mask" was such that I could actually see the dimpled patterns on the heads of some small nails.)

These single artifact pages also link back to the Cycle themed page on which they are featured, and while lacking the extreme close-ups, the smaller images on the Cycle pages frequently offer other enhancements. (Extra features include highlighted explorations of specific parts of the artifacts and, in the case of the Sowei mask, the ability to rotate the object 360 degrees.)

And lessons aren't limited to the historical and/or cultural background behind specific objects. A section exploring "Clothes as Symbols" opens with a traditional skirt worn by Iraqw girls of East Africa, and then draws parallels with examples more familiar to Western viewers, such as graduation caps and confirmation dresses. Similarly, an introduction to the "Akuba" (a representation of a child often carried in anticipation of childbirth) segues to a brief treatment of the artistic choices between realism and abstraction, while "Art Out of Context" addresses the limitations of placing artifacts into museum settings.

Graphics and colors keep the eye entertained throughout the visit, and auto-playing music and singing add life to the presentation. But while the pages loaded quickly enough, there seems to be a good deal of processor activity going on behind the scenes, as my old computer's reaction times were lagging while at the site. (No doubt, more up to date processors will show no evidence of such difficulties.)

Like most in its genre, this isn't an exceptionally comprehensive site (the entire presentation consists of 19 pieces), but there's plenty here to match most Web-based attention spans, presented in a manner that shows imagination in both the curatorial and design approaches to the subject matter.

"Cycles: African Life Through Art" can be found at http://www.ima-art.org/cycles/index.html.

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