Artbeat

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Where does art begin and everyday life end? What should be the relationship between art and ethnography, art and craft?

Questions such as these are raised by the displays in the new Sainsbury African Galleries at the British Museum, but pleasure rather than academic considerations will be uppermost in visitors' minds. The galleries are beyond the old Reading Room, past the Great Court, downstairs in a basement. But so vibrant are the colours, so varied the exhibits and so imaginative the displays that the environment is irrelevant.

Before you even go down the steps, you are confronted by "fantasy coffins" from Ghana. Beautifully made fantastical replicas, they represent a tradition that probably began in the Fifties. Mercedes cars and planes are the most popular choices.

The clever part is that you find yourself in a cross between an art gallery and a traditional museum. Nigel Barley, one of the curators, says the displays are like installations, but the information provided with them is ethnographic.

The objects are grouped, not by period or geography, but by the materials from which they are made. So, for instance, textiles, wood-carving, brass-casting and pottery each have a section, where historically interesting pieces sit beside work by contemporary artists.

The masks in the Masquerade section, made by the Kalabari people of Nigeria, often combine representations of boats with water creatures, the spirits of which possess the dancers wearing them. The components have changed little for hundreds of years, but the materials have. Instead of wicker, they may be made of cardboard, plastic, paint and metal.

Nearby is a spectacular design by contemporary artist Sokari Douglas Camp, which might be taken for an especially vibrant modern relative of the masques, made of welded steel but incorporating an unmistakable hippopotamus head. At home, as a woman, she would not have been allowed to work in metal or portray the human form.

In most parts of Africa, pottery is women's work. The water containers have evolved into perfectly beautiful and functional pieces, rounded but stable, cool, leak-proof and ith a good grip.

The crossover between European and African culture began surprisingly early. You may come across bearded gentlemen in ruffs incorporated into wood carvings. When the Portuguese arrived in Benin they thought they had found the mythical Christian kingdom of Prester John. The people of Benin, meanwhile, thought the incomers represented their expected white-faced god from below the sea.

Nigel Barley will give an introduction to the new gallery at 11.15am on April 18. Teaching resources are available from the BM's education department: 020 7323 85118854. Information: www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk Playwright Tanika Gupta took on a mammoth task when she began adapting Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan for the National Theatre's education department. In its original form it is very long, so there had to be cuts, even from Brecht's own shorter "Santa Monica" version. And then there was the language, which Gupta has modernised while avoiding "too many swearwords".

The debate as to what makes a good person is intact, but spiced with new music, including a Boyzone-style number that causes instant smiling recognition. The gods have become amalgams of model-footballer-popstar types, today's youth role-models. But be warned - students who sit in rows with pens poised are asked politely to put them away. This, like all good theatre, is meant to be involving: the audience become participants in the courtroom and nothing can happen until a volunteer operates a wired-up bike to make the lights come up. The tour goes from Harrogate to Truro, Brecon to London. For details, tel: 020 7452 3333. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk The ScranTES National Schools Photography Competition attracted more than 700 entries, and Mark Haworth-Booth, curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum and one of the judges, says he was "delighted to find so many talented young camera artists".

Abertillery comprehensive in Gwent did well, winning individual and school prizes in the secondary section. But there were many other winners. For details and more examples of winning photographs, see the TES website: www.tes.co.uk.


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