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Visions from the Forest: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone

In a stunning exhibition of nearly 100 objects dramatically lighted in high contrast settings, the Smithsonian African Art Museum is continuing to add to its showcasing luster with a compact and fascinating presentation of high arts, crafts, and important ritual objects from major countries of central west Africa — primarily Liberia and Sierra Leone but spilling over into objects from Guinea and Côte D’Ivoire as well.

Temne artist, Sierra Leone, Silver Hat with Tassel (early 20th cent.)

Temne artist, Sierra Leone, Silver Hat with Tassel (early 20th cent.)

Imaginatively titled “Visions from the Forest,” the exhibition’s geographic context of dense, mysterious forest lands, and ancient tribal peoples maintaining their centuries of African culture into the modern era, both inspires, and, in its startling beauty, delights while informing the western viewer.

Organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art in honor of the decades of 20th century field work, collecting, and academic teaching of curator and connoisseur William Siegmann, and accompanied by a splendid, fully illustrated catalog, the exhibition remains on view only through Sunday, August 17th.

One enters through the museum’s deep, underground levels in its handsome home on the Washington Mall, where one is immediately struck by the feeling of entering an almost secret — and sacred — chamber of a treasure house opened on just such a rare occasion by African hosts for visits by western eyes.

Dan or Mano artist, Liberia, Mask with Shoulder Cloth> (1st half 20th cent.).

Dan or Mano artist, Liberia, Mask with Shoulder Cloth> (1st half 20th cent.).

The spectacular masks on display from these West African people are the first art objects to greet the visitor, whose immediate reaction is usually one of astonishment at the visual power of these works and of the seemingly profound investiture of deep ritual significance to their respective creation and cultural uses. Their aura is palpable. A particularly fine and complex example is one of the type described as being used in initiation rites of young women of the Dan and Mano peoples, whose culture is centered in Liberia. Captioned as Mask with Shoulder Cloth, the work is worn on the woman’s forehead with eyelets in the cloth fabric hanging below the mask which allows her to see. Colorful feathers from the great blue turaco bird, together with an animal fur head piece accented by white bead work framing the face of the mask, complete this ensemble. It provides the viewer an forgettable visual image.

An equally fascinating display of male ritual initiation masks follows, some of which are in miniature and are said to be used as kinship identification pieces and carried in their owners’ pockets or mounted and displayed in something akin to a domestic shrine. Their stylistic conventions are fundamental to facial figurative representations having both individual characteristics and universal signifiers.

Mano artist, Liberia, Miniature Mask (mid-20th cent.).

Mano artist, Liberia, Miniature Mask (mid-20th cent.).

While most of the works on display are from the 19th and 20th centuries, the exhibition includes examples of much earlier — 14th and 15th century — stone carvings, including a particularly engaging depiction of an adult man and wife. My favorite small figurative sculpture is a contemporary brass casting of a soldier by the Kran artist John Leh of Gbabobli, Liberia.

The exhibition also includes extraordinary textiles, including masterfully designed and boldly colored hunting shirts as well as beautifully woven and resist dyed light blankets. Carved ivory horns and other prestige art objects conclude the large, single room show; the most spectacular is that of a silver hat with tassel. The hat reflects the influence of the Moroccan fez and the profound Muslim influence in its design and decorative motifs of chili peppers on vines.