by Laura Bien
Leopard's-tooth jewelry, elegant plumes of elephant hair, and a scaly hat made of the skin of a pangolin an animal suggesting a cross between a giant tadpole and a pineapple draw the eye of a visitor to the U-M Museum of Art's Art of the Lega exhibit.
Filling the upstairs west wing with an opulence of carved wood, ivory, and animal materials, the Congolese works on display aren't art for art's sake. Placards explain that the masks, figurines, carved animals, and tools are objects that regulate a multilayered social system. Used only during initiation rites, these objects function as teaching tools, each one representing multiple proverbs or parables. Divorced from this cultural context, the works seem mute.
They're also vulnerable to misinterpretation. One Western researcher interpreted a statue with a raised hand as appealing to a higher power. The exhibit's book-length catalog reveals that statues of this class, called kasangala, actually refer to solving community problems. The figures point to the sky to indicate the size of problems solved in the past.
In addition to the intrigue of hidden meaning, the works possess beauty. Rows of the pangolin's fingernail-sized triangular gray scales mount the cone-shaped hat and sweep down in a narrow tail. Iridescent shells and pearly buttons twinkle at the sides and front.
Nearby, ivory spoons glow with mellow warmth. Their variously carved handles and bowls may have been polished to their rich gloss by years of handling, since many of the objects were passed down through generations. Most of the items on display, except for those decorated with Western buttons, are of unknown age.
One section of animal figures ranges from chunky lizards (above) to a four-footed creature with a masklike head. The works are arranged in fanlike arrays of cases projecting from the wall, like spokes that make the viewer the hub of the creatures' collective gaze.
In the final part of the show, the exhibit's turquoise walls darken to deep blue, and the viewer enters a dim room with a grid of twelve dramatically lit cases. One additional case to the side displays an exquisite eyeless white mask rendered in abstract curves. A placard explains that the test to reach the highest Lega level is simply to contemplate a display of artworks.
I sat on a nearby bench and watched visitors slowly wander through the labyrinth of cases, drawing their own conclusions.
Art of the Lega continues through Sunday, January 16.
[Originally published in December, 2004.]
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