Single White Female Seeking Non-Western Exposure'Avignon.jpg

The De Young’s collection of African Art is located in the top gallery of the museum where the atmosphere is dark, cool, and encased by wooden floors and wall panels. The wall text at the entrance of the collection makes its audience aware that the museum realizes the flaws in this exhibit and even apologizes as it recognizes that the collection only contains “mostly tradition-based arts, though we hope it will continue to grow in a multitude of dimensions in the future.” Isn’t it normal that I might find this disarming? An apology in the wall text? I am not so sure I feel comfortable with “tradition-based arts.” To me, tradition is my grandmother’s incredible matzo ball soup for Passover or college girls dressing up as provocative Disney characters on Halloween. What’s the difference between tradition-based arts and non-traditional based arts? Just because something is created out of wood and beads in the shape of an ancient ancestor antelope spirit doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s “traditional.” What makes it more so than Picasso’s naked erotic pictures of prostitutes

I am a white art history student. I am constantly inundated with art of the western world andbambara-chiwara-male-1a sometimes I just want to throw all my European painting textbooks out the window and spontaneously join in on some primal rhythmic soul shaking tribal dance wearing nothing but my birthday suit. The de Young Museum’s African Exhibit should be the remedy for this feeling. The point of exhibiting non-Western art in a “Western society” is to provide that necessary exposure to non-Western arts and help us sheltered white folk understand and digest art that we’re unfamiliar with. However, I felt nothing but lost within the exhibit. The artwork does not come off as art but rather objects hung on a wall or placed in a plexi glass box. There was something totally foreign and unavailable about the works in the collection, almost as if these were objects with obscure meanings from a distant and dead culture. Many of the works were meant to evoke a sensation of spirituality and indeed a lot of them had deep rooted religious significance to the region they originated from. A specific example of this was the Dagon masks from Sirige and Kanaga. The wall label described them as spiritual masks worn by young men during their rite of passage to adulthood. They ineffectively described how the masks were worn and, as the two masks were both at least over 6 feet tall, it was hard to visualize how the mask was worn. In fact, they didn’t seem like masks at all, they were merely pieces of wood on a gray wall with some pleasing aesthetic qualities. The function of the masks was completely lost. The emotional experience; nonexistent.
When I visit an African art exhibit I don’t want to feel like a white person in an African art gallery. I want some comprehension, some emotional understanding, and some sense of satisfaction. And I’m not sure whether I need to find another museum, take an African Art class or even take a year off and live in the grasslands of Cameroon in order to find this experience.
Perhaps the latter.

Image 1 – “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” Pablo Picasso. 1907. Source:

Image 2 – “Ci Wara Headdress,” Mali People Source:


~ by tamgolan on October 31, 2008.

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