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Smithsonian's African art museum opens new exhibit

4/24/2013, 9 p.m.
Visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art can enjoy the new exhibit "Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa" until January 2014. Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah

Just in time for Earth Day on April 22, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art in Southwest opened its first major exhibition that explores ways in which African artists come to terms with their relationship with the land upon which they tread.

The exhibit, "Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa," offered Kenyan-German artist IngridMwangiRobertHutter an opportunity to explore racial juxtapositions of art on her body as a biracial woman.

"There's a relationship between our bodies and the landscape," said the artist, the child of a German mother and a Kenyan father, who combined her name Ingrid Mwangi with that of her husband's, Robert Hutter. In her piece, "Static Drift," she charted her two heritages on her body. Working with stencils, she alternately blocked or exposed her skin to the sun until the silhouettes of Africa and Germany were individually emblazoned on her abdomen.

The two pieces are posed side by side in the section of the exhibit called, "Strategies of the Surface." Each highlights the contrast between the dark and lighter skin.

"I have a specific history of living between both Germany and Kenya, and I wanted to provoke thought about the so-called dark continent, which actually has a bright future," Mwangi, 37, said regarding Africa. "And, an overdeveloped country like Germany that's moving toward over-civilization. Africa relates to all of us and there's no reason that only Africans can speak of Africa."

This is the didactic vein that curator Karen E. Milbourne is hoping the exhibit will represent for visitors, she said.

"The art is not so much to aestheticize but to provoke thought – to do something," said Melbourne who took three years to develop the exhibition by traveling around the world and meeting with various artists.

Her travels resulted in 100 works of art from the turn of the 19th to the 21st centuries. "Earth Matters" reflects the ideas and issues of the artists' choosing. More than 40 artists from 25 of Africa's 55 nations have used media such as ceramic, textile, film, drawings, printmaking, photography, wood, and mixed-media sculpture in the exhibit.

The exhibit documents the changing relationships to the land and the resulting consequences from these changes, which still have an impact today.

"Each of us makes choices every day that relate to the land beneath our feet," added Milbourne, a curator at the museum since 2008. "Where we come from informs who we consider ourselves to be. What we throw out affects what this land of ours will be in the future. These issues ... are global ... looking through the lens of Africa we can all better understand the human relationship to the landscape and its significance to the history of African art."

Besides the thematic section, "Strategies of the Surface," where Mwangi's art is housed, the exhibit is divided into four other thematic sections: "The Material Earth," "Power of the Earth," "Imagining the Underground," and "Art as Environmental Action."

A sixth section, "Earth Works," is the first installation of land art by three artists assembled outside in the Smithsonian Gardens and on the National Mall. This provides a vantage point from which to examine relationships Africans have with the land. It may be the earth as sacred or medicinal material; as something uncovered by mining; or claimed by burial as a surface to be interpreted; turned to for inspiration; or as an environment to be protected.