The Magic and Meaning of African Art

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The Magic and Meaning of African Art

Artifacts Used in Tribal Rituals - Primal and Powerful

Founded in 1998 as a private collection, the Museum of African Art is believed to be the first museum in Korea to exhibit traditional African art and artifacts. The collection of over 250 items includes wooden carvings, masks, shields, ornaments, terra-cotta sculptures and furnishings. Han Jong-hun, the curator, has a collection that includes some 600 artifacts found in Africa, Europe and the North America.

The works on display at museum were created by some 70 tribes from throughout Africa and date from between the late 17th century and early 20th century.

African art began to gain widespread international recognition about a decade ago. It remained somewhat outside the mainstream art scene until designers began inserting pieces of minimal African art works into living spaces, wanting to add an exotic element to their minimal interiors.

The Mercer Hotel in New York City's SoHo district employs African themes in its interior design. Bold, dark-stained, African stools, contrast with the cream-colored walls.

The internationally acclaimed architect, Phillippe Starck, incorporated his passion for African art into his latest hotel project, St. Martins Lane. Opened in September of last year, the London hotel is said to be the "hippest hotel in the world." Mr. Starck worked with Ian Schrager, the entrepreneur behind the New York discotheques Studio 54 and the Palladium in the 70s to create the unique hotel. African art's strong symbolism and aesthetic has continued to inspire designers and attract public interest.

African art also influenced the development of Western modern art in the 20th century. Minimal, bold touches of primary colors and motifs found in ethnic African art are evident in abstract works by artists such as Matisse, Braque, Picasso and Modigliani. Instruments used during rituals, some resembling cubes and crosses, were used by the Dogon and Senufo tribes of Mali in northwestern Africa, and were a source of inspiration for cubism. Expressions of animism and religious fervor in African art also had a profound influenced on the works of surrealists and fauvists.

Simple yet powerful and rich in emotion, African art expresses primal human desires. Its creative use of natural substances such as earth, wood, animal hides, bones, leaves and ebony stirs the imaginations of art lovers. Sculptures depicting exaggerated sexual organs and body parts are an expressions of eroticism, fertility and virility.

The "Djenne Terracotta Figure" on display at the museum is made of mud, and the figure is a typical example of African sculpture, in a style that dates back to the first century B. C.

The human body and spirit were believed to reside in carvings, helping to ward off evil and inspire benevolent leadership. The African belief in magical powers is evident in the classic ritual objects.

"Male Figure" is made of wood and symbolizes the ancestors of the Idoma tribe of Nigeria. The figure's half-closed eyes were thought to be able to perceive both the present and the future, and the sculpture was believed to be able to mediate between the human body and spirit.

"Bamana Boli" is a sculpture made from earth, tree bark, coconut, chicken and goat blood, and animal bones. Boli is a form that can summon supernatural powers. It was regarded as a local god and was used as a holy object during the inauguration of the tribe's chief. It was believed to contain supernatural energy called nyma.

African stools and chairs are appreciated for their aesthetic value. The stools played an important function in African tribal society. At the museum, "Stool," from the Mali region is an example of an item used by the privileged class. The chair was believed to hold the spirit of the owner, and was thus a symbol of position and power. There are fine examples of chairs and stools on exhibition at the museum, along with ceremonial ornaments made of glass beads.

The Museum of African Art is located at 1-113 Dongsung-dong, Seoul, Jongno-gu. It is open from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends and holidays. An English brochure is available at the museum. Admission is 2,000 won ($1.70) for adults and 1,000 won for children. For more information, call 02-741-0436/7.


by Ines Cho

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