New York Times - Roberta Smith

New York Times, Art in Review
May, 2005
By Roberta Smith

Receptacle: African Containers

Sometimes a receptacle is just a receptacle, but usually it is much more: an instrument of ritual, an expression of communal aesthetics, an ingenious use of material or an occasion for surface decoration.

All conditions apply in full to "Receptacle: African Containers," a stunning exhibition at the Axis Gallery in Chelsea. This nearly continental survey excludes ceramic vessels to concentrate on containers made of natural materials, especially gourds - and on man-made objects transformed through decoration.

The latter include a Ndebele diviner's bottle that is a glass jug encased in beading and a Mpondo canister, beaded in red, ochre and yellow that gives new life to a discarded paint can and lid. The show includes four Zulu beer baskets with woven bands of zig-zags or diamond shapes, whose grasses swell when wet, forming a watertight seal and an effective cooling system.

Some techniques create illusions. The gleaming, swelling surfaces of five Yatura ceremonial wedding gourds from Tanzania might be glazed ceramic or worked leather; they have been stained dark red and decorated with staccato incisions and geometric and zoomorphic motifs in black. A tall Gurunsi gourd from Burkina Faso, golden in color and incised with a grid of x's, suggests ivory. Two small Kwere medicine gourds with carved finial heads have matte black surfaces suggestive of basalt. Meanwhile, a rose-tinted tsonga diviner's gourd (above) gets its power not only from its fierce finial head, but also from the gourd's protruding pustule-like bumps.

Also made from gourds are the large lightweight bowls, or calabashes made by the nomadic Fulani of the Sahara region and two ceremonial vessels with woven-grass coverings that suggest colossal wine jugs.

Closer to its natural state is a bark Fang container that almost might be freshly cut from the trunk of a slender young tree. An unexpected bonus is a scintillating display of snuff containers that reiterates the show's variety and quality in miniature.

An invaluable lesson: the prevailing sense of economy and respect for nature, two things in disastrously short supply these days.