IN these "politically correct" times, it is difficult for anyone to express opinions about African art (or anything African) and not be called "insensitive," "neo-colonial," or even "racist." This is because conquest historically has been central to the appreciation and evaluation of art - especially art from Africa. Conquering armies usually carted home the spoils.Large institutions such as the British Museum own rich troves of artifacts from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. These collections of antiquities testify to the imperial legacies of European nations. More recently, African artwork considered valuable by Westerners has been imported by high-powered New York art dealers. Those works are largely the masterpieces of now-disappearing African civilizations. In the exhibition "Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art," curator Susan Vogel has succeeded in placing virtually unknown contemporary African art in a broader context. Divided between The Center for African Art uptown and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo, the landmark show tells a story of art that is a living part of African society. It proves that contemporary African art deserves a place in the world of modern art. In selecting the objects for display, Western opinions and academic notions about what constitutes authentic or high-quality African art did not apply. Individually, the items in the show are not necessarily masterpieces, but represent works that for the most part are readily available in Africa's thriving markets and back-alley workshops. Ms. Vogel, executive director of The Center for African Art, has divided the work of 20th-century African artists into five rough categories: Traditional art, New Functional art, Urban art, International art, and "Extinct" art. Each has distinctive qualities and representative artists: Traditional art, almost always sculpture, is village based. Artists create these works primarily for members of their own ethnic groups. They often serve traditional, ceremonial functions, but may use new materials. In Nigeria, the Yoruba have a high incidence of twin births and consider twins to be minor deities. When a twin dies, a carved figure is made in its memory. Originally wood was used. But today, fabric, leather, pigment, and even molded plastic and metal are often used, as in the ere ibeji dol l pictured to the left. New Functional art, according to the informative 300-page catalog accompanying the exhibition, "is art that will become traditional if it continues to be made by the next generation." Some of the show's most striking and crowd-pleasing works fall in this category. Kane Kwei, who works near Accra, Ghana, builds popular coffins that are representative of the career, or sometimes the aspirations of, the deceased. Boats, fish, onions, cocoa pods, and airplanes are some of the most sought-after models of coff ins, as well as a fine Mercedes Benz that appears in the show. Urban art is made by local artisans who typically make their living by creating signs and commercial images for small businesses. One urban artist, Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, has dedicated his career to bringing Zaire's history alive. His paintings (using flour sacks as canvas) cover events from pre-colonial days to the present and incorporate words describing the event. Cheri Samba, another Zairian artist, weaves didactic phrases in his paintings in an energetic, hybrid style that relies upon those words t o make its point. An artist simply known as Moke (whose painting appears above) paints optimistic panoramas of life in Zaire that are also widely popular. Though his works are journalistic, cataloging the ebb and flow of daily events, he is not overtly political. A placard in the show explains that these paintings sell for between $1.50 to $5.00 (portraits bring as much as $10.00), forcing urban artists to produce a painting a day to survive. International art, according to Vogel, is made by artists who have academic training, or who work with a European teacher or patron. These works tend to be more concerned with form than other kinds of African art. But compared to Western artists, who often focus entirely on form, creators of International art in Africa try to convey a specific social or political message. Mozambican artist Malangatana Valente Ngwenya is typical: The painting "E Onde Esta A Minha Mae, Os Meus Irmaos, E Todos Os Outros" (Where Are My Mother, My Brothers, My Sisters And All The Others?) reflects the trauma of rebel atrocities in Mozambique's 16-year civil war, which has displaced millions of people. International art by Africans has grown under the watchful eye of the continent's young governments and has generally attempted to further the ideals of newly independent nations. Yet horizons for the work are narrow. Consumers of this art are mostly limited to the wealthy elites in governments, foreign embassies, and the continent's tiny group of galleries. "Extinct" art is traditional African art of the past. As the objects are mainly stored in museums, they rarely serve their original ceremonial functions. "Extinct" art is really all that most Westerners know of African art. The fine masks, sculptures, bronze plaques, and reliquary figures represent, as Vogel writes in the catalog, "a glorious legacy - both a burden and an inspiration for contemporary artists." Archetypal "extinct" art objects often appear on banknotes, postage stamps, and posters, and ar e "treated as a reservoir of forms for popular images, conferring prestige and signaling African identity," Vogel says. A placard in the show explains that these images and forms may well hold more power today as icons of cultural and national identity than they did when they were first created. As its title states, "Africa Explores" truly does show that contemporary African artists are using totally new forms of expression, instead of rehashing Western aesthetics. The legacy of colonialism is not proving so onerous that African artists cannot thrive and create their own artistic formulas.
'Africa Explores' will stay at the New Museum of Contemporary Art through Aug. 11, and at The Center for African Art through Dec. 31. From Oct. 2 through Dec. 29, the New Museum of Contemporary Art portion of the exhibition will travel to the University Art Museum in Berkeley, Calif. The entire show will then appear in these venues: the Dallas Museum of Art (Feb. 9 to April 5, 1992); the St. Louis Art Museum (May 15 to July 5, 1992); the Mint Museum of Charlotte, N. C. (Aug. 8 to Oct. 11, 1992); the Car negie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (Nov. 7 to Jan. 10, 1993); the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. (Feb. 6 to April 4, 1993).