What if traditional African art enters Medieval and Renaissance rooms?

Marta Galli  -  January 31, 2018

Berlin: at the Bode Museum a show titled ‘Beyond campare’ juxtaposes traditional African art pieces with the museum’s permanent collection of European Medieval and Renaissance art.

We once visited the studio of a prominent psychiatrist in Milan and the interior décor was one big cliché: the couch, ready for the patient, could have been any colour as long as it was red, the painting hanging above it was colour-matched to the couch, and the rest of the space was, very discretely, clad with traditional African art sculptures. Obviously, if someone wants to reinforce his own aura, he’d better choose suitable symbols, and our psychiatrist did everything right. In fact, while we can only guess what the actual drive was behind his collecting – “I must always have an object to love”, Sigmund Freud, who also was an avid collector, once confessed – for sure, given the context, there was something particularly intriguing in that selection: ‘primitive’ art speaks volumes about psychoanalysis.

One must remember, indeed, how traditional African art has been a game changer in the development of western art through global modernism, a movement of which Freud is considered one of the forefathers. Then, after Picasso – who was deeply influenced by Sub-Saharan masks – it comes as no surprise that contemporary art resonates in harmony with African art.

But what happens when traditional African masterpieces are juxtaposed with European sculptures from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance? At Bode museum in Berlin, the exhibition “Beyond Compare” is a splashy and unpreceded attempt to display together objects that traditionally belong to unconnected compartments: ethnology versus history of art. In other words, it’s the eternal dialectic between low and high or folklore and capital-C culture. And it’s exactly this dichotomy that the curators here – Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine and Paola Ivanov – want to dismantle, triggering a paradigm shift.

The exhibition starts off in the Basilica with a couple of tiny sculptures in the same stately glass box, which are exquisite examples, in their own right, of the skill of their creators, although only one of the two artists can be identified. This is the putto with tambourine by Donatello (1428-29), the other is the statue of the goddess Irhevbu or of princess Edeleyo from the kingdom of Benin dating from the 16th or 17th century. Neither one was conceived as an independent work of art, the putto being part of a group of five decorating the baptismal font in Siena Cathedral, while the goddess or princess was most probably created for a memorial altar of the oba (the king) of Benin. Both were cast in precious materials – bronze and copper alloy – and served religious or ritual purposes. And both were bought at the beginning of the 20th century, the first coming from the hands of private owners, the second brought home by British troops invading Africa. However, despite their unquestionable value in the context they originated from, the reception in German collections was quite different: while the Donatello piece found a place in the Kaiser-Friedrich-museum (now Bode) next to a Leonardo Da Vinci and some other bronze statuettes meant to evoke the cultural background from which it arose, the piece from Benin was relegated as specimen in a crowded display together with various Nigerian objects in the Ethnologisches museum.

The path of the exhibition continues with some 30 further juxtapositions running through the permanent collection (plus a room dedicated solely to the temporary show), revealing correlations on various levels and raising issues concerning how Europeans and Africans have seen and portrayed one another over the centuries, how different the aesthetic values are despite the similar artistic practices, how certain assumptions we have about art in Europe should be used carefully when we talk about art in Africa. In the age of imperialism, Europe and North America – the global North – conceived ‘the others’ not as equals but as vestiges from the past, what the anthropologist Johannes Fabian calls “denial of coevalness”. And while western art was interpreted as evolving, “African art was considered static or traditional”. Often the word ‘primitive’ is used, revealing a huge misunderstanding. Traditional African art actually covers an extremely wide range of languages that goes from minute, coarse naturalism to a simplification of forms twisted into expressionism. But we all know that, like all history, the history of art is written by the winner, and it is because of European – and German – colonialism that many of the works in the exhibition have left the mother continent to enter Berlin’s museums.

In the act of setting up an exhibit of this kind, curators are shifting walls that have always been there. “The ability to compare opens new horizons or perspectives and releases us from the narrow parochialism of what is familiar,” write the curators. “Comparing things that we do understand with others we do not can help us to build bridges into the unknown.” At the same time they are aware of the fact that comparisons are never straightforward or neutral: if anything, they are “inevitably tendentious, didactic, competitive and prescriptive”.

But pushing the boundaries, one idea is very clear in the curators’ mind: museum classifications are nothing more than artificial constructs. If it’s not a matter of facts, what they can do is put everything into a new perspective, shed new light. So now, when you see the paired objects – say the putto and the Benin statuette greeting the visitor at the very entrance of the Basilica – you are prompted to think of them in aesthetic not ethnographic terms. Visually, it might be a clash, but with such an exciting effect that one wonders why it has not been tried before. The frisson is perhaps similar to that of a wunderkammer, but the operation – for connoisseurs – is reminiscent of what has been done in books like André Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire.

The exhibition was set up when the Ethnologisches museum was shut down, and will stay at the Bode until further notice; that’s to say, until the installation of the Staatliche Museen’s non-European collections in the Humboldt Forum, some time before the end of 2019. In the meanwhile, preconceptions will possibly have the time to change. In terms of respective influence we cannot say it all started with modernism; Europe and Africa have always been part of the same globalized world. So from the new perspective, you don’t need to be a fan of modernism or later contemporary art to appreciate it. Nor is traditional African art the leisure pastime of some freaks interested in tribal matters rather than in sculpture and its plastic qualities. But in art, in its own right.