African Altars Give Form To Faith

From Nigeria to Brazil, African-style shrines keep ancestral practices alive

EACH New Year's Eve, the beaches near Rio de Janeiro flicker with light from thousands of candles in the sand. These shrines adorned with flowers, wine, and fruit are not sand castles. They are beach altars dedicated to the Yoruba goddess of waters.

Believers in the Umbanda faith, the largest black religion in Brazil, build them to seek blessings for the coming year. These shrines are just one of many displays in a ground-breaking exhibition at the Museum for African Art in SoHo until Jan. 9. The show, called ``Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas,'' demonstrates how African religious traditions have been both transplanted and transformed abroad.

This exhibition is the first in the museum's 10-year history to deal with art objects from the African diaspora. It juxtaposes altars from the Kongo culture in Central Africa and Yoruba religion of Nigeria with modified, or creolized, versions in North and South America. From the Bronx to the Deep South, from rain forests in Suriname to apartments in Havana, African-Americans have kept alive ancestral practices. Visitors to the museum have left offerings such as coins, cowry shells, and a red AIDS ribbon at the altars as evidence of the ongoing vitality of these faiths.

An altar to the Yoruba thunder god, Shango, illustrates the massed symbolic objects found on African altars. Carved wooden axes, copper rattles, wood sculptures of fertility figures, leather wall hangings, fabric, and pottery compose the assemblage. They illustrate how objects typically displayed in museums as tribal ``art'' were never intended for such a purpose. Instead, they were crafted for devotional exercises, as carriers of spiritual power.

African masks and figures were also meant to be viewed in ceremonial context accompanied by music, dancing, and feasting. Yet modernists searching for forms outside the European tradition seized on them as models in their rebellion against naturalism. Ever since Picasso painted masklike faces on his ``Demoiselles d'Avignon,'' African sculpture has been viewed as the dernier cri in artistic invention.

For entirely different reasons, slaves and their descendants in the Americas manipulated traditional forms. In this case, improvisation was due to necessity, not a quest for formal innovation. Africans abstracted the deities' forms to disguise them so their worship wouldn't be condemned as heathen idolatry. Besides modifying the figures' forms, they often had to hide the altars completely. In this exhibition, one altar was designed to fit in a closet, while Cuban painter Jose Bedia concealed his in a laundry hamper.

To ensure the survival of their beliefs, albeit in an ecumenical form, other New World altar-builders incorporated elements from local religions. An Umbanda altar mixes plaster statuettes of Christian figures like the Virgin Mary with elements like feathers and shells from Yoruba and Kongo iconography.

The exhibition makes a case that yard shows (or displays of found objects that often adorn houses in the American South) derive from Kongo culture. One Mississippi yard show installed in the museum looks like random leftovers from a garage sale, but each element carries symbolic meaning. Circular objects like tires and objects that embody motion, like fan blades, convey the Kongo concept of the soul's continuity through various life-and-death cycles. A doll armed with a pistol is considered to be protecting the house against intruding spirits.

A bottle tree has a similar defensive function. Plastic two-liter soda bottles affixed to tree branches to capture harmful spirits in Virginia today echo bottle trees in Angola centuries ago.

Judging from the comments recorded at the end of the exhibition, the altars are capable of reaching museum visitors' emotions. Remarks - many in schoolchild handwriting - ranged from profane to profound. ``Long live paganism,'' ``Love it,'' and ``Oui - whee!'' were some exhilarated responses. The majority expressed reverence, such as: ``a religious experience even for a nonreligious person.''

While much contemporary art expresses a mood of iconoclasm, the mood of this exhibition is respectful iconolatry.

The supernatural imagery has heartfelt significance for millions of faithful worshipers on both sides of the Atlantic. As the curator, Robert Farris Thompson of Yale University, puts it, ``Darkest Africa, my eye! It's like going into Con Edison; it's the Ultimate Lighting System. Goodbye, Post-Modernism! Hello, Spirit!''

* The Museum for African Art is at 593 Broadway, between Houston and Prince Streets. The exhibition will travel to four locations: Seattle Art Museum (Feb. 17 to April 17, 1994), University Art Museum, Berkeley, Calif. (Sept. 27 to Feb. 19, 1995), Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Ala. (March 19, 1995 to May 14, 1995), and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Va. (July 1 to Sept. 1, 1995).

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