Geography of a vast aesthetic

Elaine Williams

Elaine Williams explains how the Royal Academy is remapping our understanding of African art. Eight hundred art objects from Africa will grace the rooms of the Royal Academy in October, a testament to the elegant and sensitive aesthetic of a whole continent.

One of the most significant aspects of this exhibition will be the placing of Egyptian art within a pan-African context. Through the perspective of artists such as Picasso, the Expressionists and Surrealists, who to an extent have conditioned our way of seeing, we tend to appreciate African art for its expressive qualities, for its disturbing power and imagery, to concentrate on its fetishist aspects. On the other hand, the present Western fashion for the ethnic has limited our understanding of the sophistication and breadth of African art.

But if we see Egyptian art as African art and take a journey up the Nile, east and west into the interior, making connections as we go, then we perceive within the great diversity of African art a more delicate aesthetic. Egyptian culture has been colonised by the West, which has claimed it for its own. We tend to think of Egyptian art leading on to Classical civilisation, so to the Renaissance and so incorporated into the Western canon.

But if Egypt is returned to Africa our perceptions have to shift. The objects exhibited span vast periods of time from the earliest artefact, a handmade stone tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania dating from 1.6 million BC, to the most recent pieces made within living memory. They also span vast tracts of land from exquisite Tutsi miniature baskets from 20th-century Rwanda in the east, to a beautifully refined funerary head from the 18th-century Akan Kingdom in the west. What holds the exhibition together is the sheer aesthetic refinement and quality of these works. This is high art.

In truth a reappraisal of African art has been under way for some decades. We have a greater understanding of the history and civilisations behind these objects. The art of the African continent is no longer simply defined as "primitive" by Western art historians and artists with all the connotations which that word holds.

No doubt the reappraisal will be sharpened by this ambitious exhibition: Africa: The Art of a Continent. It is the first attempt anywhere in the world to map the artistic achievements of Africa in its entirety. It is also timely, for as South Africa emerges from the shadow of apartheid, new emphasis will be placed on the often neglected art of the southern regions, with Zulu snuff bottles and neck rests revealing an "unrivalled design sensibility". As with many of the objects they speak of poise and elegance of form in abstract terms.

Tom Phillips, the exhibition's curator, is a Royal Academician and artist concerned with icons of the contemporary age. He has a large personal collection of African art and took on the job with the determined aim of making this a show of fine art objects. He says: "There are plenty of opportunities elsewhere - over the road in the Museum of Mankind, for example - to see what Africa does in ethnographic terms, but Africa's ancient civilisations have paralleled movements in European art. We have here things to wonder at. "

With pieces taken from African, American and European museums, galleries and private collections, this exhibition is conceived as a journey around Africa and divides the continent into seven geographical areas. Beginning with Egypt and Nubia it will move through Ethiopia and the Sudan to the Eastern Coast - including the island of Madagascar - to Southern Africa, up through the Congo and Central Africa to the coastal regions of West Africa and the countries of the sub-Sahara and finally to North Africa where Egypt recurs in its later Christian and Islamic cultures.

It will include the finely carved head of the Amarna Princess, daughter of Akhnaten, from the Cairo Museum; a lyre over three feet high and profusely decorated with coins, beads and shells from northern Sudan; a totemic bird pole from Zimbabwe; ancient textiles with sophisticated abstract designs from Zaire; treasures from the Royal City of Benin and the gold ornaments and jewellery of the Ashanti; mosaics, manuscripts and Arabic calligraphy from North Africa and an elaborately carved pulpit which epitomises the splendour of Mamluq art in medieval Cairo.

The exhibition has prompted one of the most extensive education programmes undertaken by the Royal Academy. A teachers' private view evening, which includes introductory slide talks, will be held on Friday, October 13, 6.30-8.30pm. Free gallery tours for ticket holders are a new addition and will be given on Wednesdays at 1pm for adults and on Sundays at 3pm for visitors of all ages.

Storytelling sessions by the South African Gcina Mhlope, among others, based on the objects, will be held in the galleries during the autumn half-term and Christmas holidays.

A teacher's pack introduces each of the seven areas of the exhibition with a closer look at selected works and gives ideas for looking at African art in the classroom, ways of using the exhibition and looking at the objects on show. It will also look at different approaches to the arts of Africa and at the importance of geography and the environment, trade routes and the influence of Islam and Christianity.

A primary guide will concentrate on one or two objects from each of the seven areas in order to thread a visit through the exhibition for 7 to 11 year olds and for secondary pupils aged 12 to 16 a written guide will be devised on similar principles.

Primary study mornings will include an introduction to the show. They will touch on areas mentioned in the national curriculum but also concentrate on the variety of cultures throughout the continent. Children will be divided into groups of four or five, each with a guide, for sketching and project work and will undertake a practical workshop to create a group piece to take back to school. Two in-service training days for primary teachers will be run on November 10 and 11 in conjunction with the Museum of Mankind.

Secondary study mornings will be object-based, combining investigation from a historical perspective and a contemporary viewpoint and will make links with other art forms including artists, dancers and musicians. Guided tours of the exhibition will be available to pre-booked school groups during the day. Study sessions, using a handling collection, will be available for the visually impaired.

* Africa: The Art of a Continent, October 4 1995 to January 21 1996. Royal Academy of Art, Piccadilly, London. Tel: 0171 439 7438. Centrepiece of africa95 celebrations, a nationwide season of exhibitions on African art.

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