Inspired'Meaning'

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African'Writing and Graphic Systems' Full of Beautiful Variety

You’d be forgiven if, confronted with an exhibit titled “Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art,” you wouldn’t exactly be bowled over with anticipation. Forgiven, maybe. But you’d be wrong, dead wrong.

The exhibition at the National Museum of African Art is indeed about writing and graphic systems, but that doesn’t begin to hint at the audacious imaginings at work here, or the variety of beautiful works, or the beautiful variety of the written word and Africa’s long history of communications systems.

The somewhat prosaic title also doesn’t hint at the adventurous ideas on the part of the curators, who have not only ranged far and wide over African landscapes, nations, peoples, cultures and art for this display, but also coupled “historic” examples with the work of contemporary artists—some of which are worthy of exhibitions by themselves.

The 90 pieces on display span B.C.-dated writing, inscriptions, fragments and artwork from ancient Egypt, where modern writing first took shape, to modern-day ritual objects and religious paintings—a rich diversity that is increasingly characteristic of recent exhibitions at the museum.

Writers can appreciate ideas about inscriptions, words, alphabets, letters, markings and decorative ways of communication without necessarily being linguists. And the curators of this exhibition have taken great organizational care to provide meanings as to what is being presented.

The exhibition is sectioned into thematic parts, beginning with the introductory “Inscribing Meaning: Ways of Knowing.” Then, “Inscribing the Body” shows the variety of ways in which different African societies have used body inscription to communicate and denote meanings. “Sacred Scripts” includes remarkable Egyptian examples; “Inscribing Power/Writing Politics” feature examples of art relating to contemporary African politics; “Words Unbound: Exploring the Book” is a fascinating examination of books as art; and finally “Word Play” addresses how phonetic, alphabetic and inscriptive art begins to reflect Africa’s tribal and pluralistic emerging societies.

Throughout the different themes, you’ll see how ancient and modern writing systems—as practical usage, symbolism and art—have flourished in Africa for thousands of years and contributed to world history.

People naturally tend to genuflect culturally before the authentically ancient—it’s not only as if you’re touching another time, but the experience of actually being in another time. This feeling is generated, for instance, by many of the objects on display, such as an 18th-century prayer book (to the Virgin Mary) from Ethiopia, inscribed with Ge’ez, the liturgical script of Ethiopia.

But here you’ll also find an Asafo company flag from the Fante peoples of Ghana, circa 1970. An Asafo flag—a kind of quilted flag full of inscription, color and figures—tells of that particular company’s superiority over all other such companies, usually military institutions dating back to Ghana’s past, including the colorful, chest-beating claim that, “All our enemies are vultures.”

Other contemporary work comes from Libyan artist Ali Omar Ermes, whose paintings draws upon Arabic traditions and script. But mixed in with these pieces are relics that go much further back, including fragments of a funerary stela (a thin slab of stone) found in Sudan and inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphic script, as well as a statuette of Imhotep from the Egyptian Ptolemaic period, circa 332 B.C.

This type of synergy is found throughout all the various themes. There are necklaces from Somalia, pendants and various accessories from the Tuareg peoples of Niger, an amulet ring from Morocco, and a Fulani milk gourd. These more traditional items are placed alongside the powerful work of South African artist Berni Searle, who has used her body as a canvas to produce large digital photographic prints all dealing with the word “Stain.” In this vivid portrayal, Searle relates her ideas about race, identity, violence, vulnerability and the quicksilver ways we look at the human body—ideas that worm their way into the mind, much like everything else in this exhibition.

Likewise, “Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves Barbie,” in which Egyptian artist Ghada Amer uses embroidered, life-size figures, is worth a second look as well as a double take.

The section on “Sacred Scripts” includes the inner lid of a mummy coffin dating back to 1075 B.C.—replete with imagery and hieroglyphic inscriptions. “Inscribing Power,” meanwhile, features stamps, a king’s cloth from Ghana, a double-faced helmet mask from Nigeria, and a curved saber, all symbolic of power.

Of course, politics brings out powerful imagery as well—none perhaps more powerful than those emanating from the Apartheid days of South Africa. Two works from a six-part series called “Pages from a Government Tourist Brochure” by South African artist Sue Williamson—using steel and heavy metal frames—speak truth to that power.

Indeed, at every turn, you’re confronted by surprises, magically beautiful images, scripts and designs, as well as contemporary jazz-like riffs on the themes contained in “Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art.” Pedestrian title, maybe, but an exhilarating exhibition nonetheless—the latest in a series of ravishing, thought-provoking shows at the National Museum of African Art.

Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art through Aug. 26 National Museum of African Art 950 Independence Ave., SW For more information, please call (202) 633-4600 or visit http://africa.si.edu.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999