VERY few shows have moved me as deeply this year as the Center for African Art's current exhibition, ``Wild Spirits Strong Medicine: African Art and the Wilderness.'' In fact, its main display piece - a room-size grouping of eight exotic creature masks, complete with appropriate costumes - easily tops anything else on view in New York today for visual drama and effectiveness.
The show itself is a rare treat. It's the latest in a continuing series of excellent loan exhibitions of African art put together by curator Susan Vogel, the center's executive director. This time she focuses on African concepts and definitions of civilization and the wilderness, and on the ways these views have shaped African art.
To make her point, she selected more than 100 rare and significant African masterpieces, many of which have never been exhibited before. All were made between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. Individually and collectively, they constitute a powerful visual expression of traditional African cultural values, and they serve as a potent and provocative viewing experience.
I say provocative because we Westerners, or at least those of us who haven't had much experience with African art, are liable to get mixed signals from this exhibition and from the catalog that accompanies it.
We are informed, on the one hand, that these exotic-looking sculptures are art and, on the other, that our conception of art differs dramatically from that held by the creators of these pieces.
In particular, we are told that much traditional African art focuses on unseen forces from the natural world that affect the stability and continuity of life. And that the tiny, carved figures, towering masks, powerful heads, and numerous other objects, which we see neatly arranged in glass cases or mounted in impressive, well-lighted settings, were fashioned for immediate ends having to do with physical and spiritual well-being - even survival. We are told they had little or nothing to do with aesthetics, creative originality, or ``self-expression,'' as the West understands them.
We are told, in short, that these objects were not made to be looked at and enjoyed primarily for their shapes, textures, or colors, but to be used in rituals believed to affect every aspect of their owners' lives. That they represent magic, not beauty, and that we will miss much of their quality and significance if we fail to grasp the exact purposes for which they were made.
Well and good. I for one accept the challenge, and am attempting to adapt my perceptions and sensibilities to their purposes. At the same time, however, few observers would deny that these works have an extraordinary impact even on those who know little or nothing of their origin. But then, that's as it should be. They can be viewed as art after all, and art can cut through a surprising number of cultural differences.
For instance, I challenge anyone to walk away unmoved by the group of eight creature masks mentioned above. Seen together, these snake, buffalo, warthog, hawk, and butterfly masks - each decorated with bold, geometric patterns painted in black, white, and red - create an unforgettable impression.
They are large - the snake mask measures 15 feet high, the butterfly mask 9 feet wide - and they convey an almost overwhelming sense of presence and power.
They needed that power, of course, for these masks from the Bwa region of Burkina Faso in West Africa represent bush spirits and were used in ceremonies designed to establish harmonious relations between men and nature or village and bush.
They make an ideal centerpiece for the exhibition, since they beautifully illustrate several of the ways in which African concepts of the nature/culture or wilderness/ village dichotomy are expressed through art.
Other installations make similar points. In one, pairs of objects are arranged to reveal contrasting values associated with village and wilderness: female/male, order/ chaos, social/solitary. In another, one mask symbolizes the order and balance of a particular group's domestic realm, the other the threat and danger of the uncontrollable wilderness.
Here again, however, art wins out over the anthropology lesson - as indeed, I suspect Dr. Vogel intended it should.
The works she chose may instruct, but many are also visually impressive. A dozen, at least, have the presence and authority of major art.
The less dramatic pieces - the diviner's gourds, drinking cups, war tunics, and miniature figures - also hold their own beautifully, even in the company of much more massive works. Here, as with all other significant art, physical size is of much less importance than scale and the perfect interrelationship of parts. In its own way, the 8-inch-high drinking cup in the shape of a truncated man, made in Kuba, Zaire, is just as monumental as the 4-foot-high wood and metal figure of a standing four-horned man, which comes from Songye, Zaire.
Finally, it all boils down to this: The center and Dr. Vogel have assembled another first-rate show.
After its closing here Aug. 20, the exhibition travels to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. (Sept. 12-Nov. 22); Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami (Dec. 14-Jan. 28, 1990); Columbia Museum of Art in Ohio (Feb. 18-April 30, 1990); and the Worcester Art Museum in Mass. (Sept. 15-Dec. 1, 1990).