The Inner Eye: Vision and Transcendence in African Arts

The Inner Eye: Vision and Transcendence in African Arts

Not more than a year ago, I was writing about a show at LACMA with a transcendental dimension – not merely transcending its materials, approach and style, but whose visionary qualities might potentially carry the dedicated viewer to a place of transcendence. Only a year later, I am again confronted with an exhibition – that not only holds out this possibility, but announces it as subject and integral component of the exhibited work. The aforementioned show (Agnes Martin) came out of Western modernism. Here, the transcendence is intrinsic to an aspect of daily/historical life and cultural experience and (not incidentally) religious practices that accompanied them and emerges from a broad overview of several African cultures evolving over the course of six centuries. It’s also seen in this broad context as intrinsic to the act of seeing itself; also, paraphrasing John Berger, the ways of seeing – the casual observation, as distinguished from the deliberate or extended regard, an averted or deflected gaze. Where the direct gaze was discouraged (in ritual acknowledgment of power, religious observance, etc.), the gaze in these instances is redirected ‘inward,’ or ‘beyond.’ Although a number of the heads and masks have the pared, schematic quality of Cycladic idols, many of them acknowledge complexity, duality, even duplicity – thinking here of a Congolese head (albeit late 19th century) in which a double-funnel of heads is mounted atop another proto-Cubistic mask – literally gazing in all directions. Even the mask ‘speaks’ back to its bearer – it was not uncommon for inscriptions to appear on the mask inner side. 

LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Show runs thru July 9, 2017