The Magazine

Black and White

What the modern eye saw when looking at Africa.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By EVE TUSHNET
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Some of the exhibit's most famous photographs, Ray's variant versions of noire et blanche, show a reclining white lady with closed eyelids and aggressive vamp lipstick, holding up a gleaming black mask whose oval shape resembles her head. The atmosphere is quiet, and the easy contrasts make the piece look like a cosmetics ad. (Modernists shifted readily from high-art to commercial applications, as a section of the exhibit devoted to fashion photography demonstrates.) A more complex interaction occurs between the "Bangwa queen" statue and a pale woman who sits at her feet, gazing up at her as the statue looks past her. The woman's arm rests between the statue's ankles, suggesting a connection between them; the Hitchcock shadows behind her suggest danger, but her expression seems admiring.

Two photographs cleverly juxtaposed make the same case that superficially similar uses of African objects can lead to deeply divergent images. First, there's a funny photo by Roland Penrose in which two white men sit on a couch, apparently in animated discussion-their features obscured by the outsized African and Oceanic masks over their faces. In a haunting Curtis Moffat photo, by contrast, the two white subjects in African masks are filmed with a gauzy, otherworldly glow. The masks make them dream figures, not parodies.

Yet perhaps the most interesting implication of this fascinating exhibit is that dream and parody are not so far removed. If exaggeration is the hallmark of both deracinated modernity and tribal religion, might this imply that humans in general live in, and long for, something beyond everyday reality? Neither the Westerners nor the Africans here believed that human nature could be represented solely through naturalistic depictions.
This show suggests that Western readings of African art required an insouciant disregard for the specificity of African religious cultures. Man Ray and his colleagues rearranged African religious objects into a new symbolic alphabet, a kind of godless syncretism whose high priest is the artist himself. The results are as beautiful and challenging as Simone Kahn.

Eve Tushnet, a writer in Washington, blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.