/ 19 March 2004

Figuring women

There is not much traditional African art currently on display in central Cape Town. If residents and visitors to the city wish to admire the creativity of bygone Africa, they’d do best to stroll through Greenmarket Square and its surrounds, where many traders and a handful of dealers offer eroded facsimiles of the masterworks of old.

Tourist knock-offs and sought-after genuine ”finds” are piled high. Everything has its price, yet there is hardly a tag to be found. If you stop to admire you may be expected to engage and haggle. This is not the place for an introductory lesson in African art, but rather a place to test your patience.

The Gold of Africa Museum has provided Cape Town with a centrally located display of African art and crafts. Here you find a permanent exhibition of ornamental gold, mainly from West and Southern Africa, on loan from the Barbier-Mueller collection in Geneva. Explanatory notes are accompanied by the recorded sound of smithies’ hammers and birdsong.

Since February 20 there has been an additional temporary exhibition of African sculptures, also on loan from the Barbier-Mueller collection. Called Figures of Speech, it consists entirely of female figures.

The title is a play on words and contrasts with the much-lambasted early 20th-century study of sacred African art, The Voice of Africa, written by the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius. His remarkable, but outdated account describes, from a colonialist point of view, the challenges of hunting down and collecting the traditional African art of preceding centuries.

There are 26 works on show in Figures of Speech, and 16 distinctive types of sculpture. Much of the work originates from Côte d’Ivoire.

The display seeks to demonstrate that there is no standard or monolithic ”Ivorian” style — rather each work comes out of long traditions in well-organised societies.

The figures all depict women in their many and vital roles in society. In one respect this exhibition introduces the viewer to the complexity of Africa, not its simplicity.

The show endeavours to explain how works from a particular region suddenly become available in abundance. This is often an indicator that a region or culture is entering into a state of flux. Competing ideas, religions and neighbouring populations either strengthen new identities or contribute to the discarding of older traditional practices.

Metaphorically the works are presented in one room like a ”forest of spirits”. The exhibition includes two large photographs from temples belonging to priestesses from Ghana and Benin (background notes speak of a threat to these environments from newer religious orders). These offer a sense of how sculptures are housed as functional objects that are venerated, appeased, honoured and consulted.

This collaboration is the first show that does not consist of gold to be loaned from the Barbier-Mueller collection. Included are such items as a tattooed and ankle bracelet-bound Dan figure from adjacent Liberia and an Ivorian Ebrie doll — the type that inspired Brett Murray’s controversial public commission on nearby St George’s Mall. Murray’s update involved fixing the mug of the cheeky American cartoon anti-hero Bart Simpson to this image of ancient Africa.

Figures of Speech is on show Mondays to Saturdays from 9.30am to 5pm until the end of May at the Gold of Africa Museum, Martin Melck House, 96 Strand Street, Cape Town