Sudeka Bobson Mohanlall

Portrait by Sukdeo Bobson Mohanlall
Bobson Studio
ca. 1970

Thabiso Phokompe

Thabiso Phokompe
Muthi We Mpilo (Tree of Life)
1999 Review Magazine - Into Africa, 2001

Excerpt from: Into Africa
by Joy Garnett

Zulu beads at the Axis Gallery

One of the most interesting spaces to open recently is the South African-run Axis Gallery, located on the top floor of a tiny walk-up at 453 West 17th Street in Chelsea. Its art-historian directors, Gary van Wyk and Lisa Brittan, have consistently offered up mini museum-like exhibitions that are exquisitely hung and historically informative; they also introduce a lot of South African artists to the New York market.

The current show entitled "Zulu Beads" offers an astonishing array of objects and artworks, from traditional marriage capes, ceremonial spoons, beer pots, dolls, gauntlets and headrests to studio photographs and a contemporary wall piece in ochre and black burlap by Thabiso Phokompe, a young Zulu artist who made his New York debut in the "Liberated Voices" exhibition at the Museum for African Art in 1999.

In this is a beautifully thought-out installation, associations hum between many of the works. Beaded dolls, hairpieces and other garments hang near a selection of contemporary color photographs, portraits made at the celebrated Bobson Studios in Durban by photographer Sudeko Bobson Mohanlall (b. 1928).

The subjects in these photographs make use of costumes and props available in the studio, and similar accessories hang on the walls beside them. The subjects pose themselves in ways that are thoroughly eccentric while very much in keeping with the well-established tradition of African studio photography. Several similar photographs by Mohanlall are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Recent Acquisitions exhibition (see below).

Resonant elements aside, there are also some interesting contrasts: pink and turquoise layered marriage capes, whose white beaded tassels proclaim a bride's virginity, hang not far away from metal-spiked wrist gauntlets worthy of Japanese anime's fiercest robot-demons.

A man's black leather backshirt, replete with brass studs, is likewise redolent with unequivocal machismo -- fleeting images of pit bull collars and other S&M paraphernalia flit across one's mind.

New York Times Review
Friday, June 1, 2001 Page: 1

Excerpt from: As Chelsea Gallery District Expands, a Host of Visions Rush
By Roberta Smith

This much is certain: the art world will have Chelsea to kick around for a few seasons more, at least. Everyone loves to complain about New York's newest art destination. It's too far from everything, especially subways. There aren't enough places to eat, especially cheaply. There's too much concrete, much of it indoors.

Still, last month's issue of the Gallery Guide lists more than 170 galleries in the area. If the influx suggests a lemminglike failure of imagination, as the area expands it is also diversifying. Yes, there is the Gagosian Gallery multiplex, with two and three big names on the marquee at once, and another bruiser, PaceWildenstein, is to open a Chelsea branch in September. But this season four of New York's oldest artist-run co-ops managed to carve out spaces on West 25th Street. And the Esso Gallery, which ran on a shoestring on Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side for four years, is now running on a shoestring on West 28th Street. It is one of several galleries on blocks east of Ninth Avenue (some even east of Fifth Avenue), an area known for lower rents and already christened E-Chel.

There are also some singularly focused new additions, like the Axis Gallery at 453 West 17th Street (in one of the few Chelsea gallery buildings with wood floors). Its concentration is on South African art, both traditional and contemporary, and photography, and the current exhibition of the various, often beaded arts of the Zulu is a visual knockout.

New York Times / Weekend: Fine Arts Leisure
Holland Cotter's review, Page E31

Safari Through Troves Of African Wonders
A legendary collector's legacy is lovingly presented at his museum.
In Brooklyn and Chelsea
By Holland Cotter

The African collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is one of the oldest and most impor-tant in the United States. A selection from its 6,000 objects, which include this late 19th-century Okuyi mask from Gabon, moved into newly in-stalled permanent gal-leries just a few years ago, and this month those galleries reopened after a makeover intend-ed to put the objects in a lively visual context, helping to explain their uses and meanings. From displays of works from Morocco and Egypt to the Zulu tradi-tions of South Africa, the galleries ex-pand viewers' consciousness of what constitutes African art. Many of the objects on view are familiar friends; others are recent acquisitions being integrated into the collection for the first time or long-time holdings that have rarely been put on view.

Supplementing the museum exhibition is "Zulu," a show of South African art, much of it from the 20th century, at the Axis Gallery on West 17th Street in Chelsea. Together, the two spaces challenge definitions of African art.

Holland Cotter's review, Page 36.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art has the oldest and one of the most important collections of African art in the United States. And it owes this dis-tinction to the gotta-have-it drive of an astute professional shopper named Stewart Culin.

Culin was the curator of ethnology in Brooklyn in the 1920's. His department was a repository for all of the museum's non-Western art - Asian, African, Oceanic, American Indian - which was regarded by many as not really art at all. Because the museum was in a spending mood in those years, and the stuff Culin was after was cheap, he was able to pick up some, shall we say, very nice things.

On a buying spree in Europe in 1922 he caught wind of a bargain in Brussels. A military officer retired from service in the Belgian Congo wanted to unload his collection of African art, some 1,500 objects. Culin bought the whole lot for a song. (The shipping crates that carried the collection hack to New York cost more than the art itself.)

The following year he presented the entire purchase as an exhibition and instantly set precedents. Not only was this the largest museum show of such material ever assem-bled (exceeded only in 1995 by "Africa: Art of a Continent" in London), it was also among the first in this country to present African objects as me art rather than as ethnographic specimens.

Culin's core collection has been much added to since, most recently with a group of knockout pieces do-nated by the artist Beatrice Riese. It now totals some 6,000 objects, only a fraction of which can be displayed at any time. Just a few years ago the museum reinstalled its permanent African galleries with some 250 pieces. This month 20 or so additional objects were added and the gallery design completely revamped.

Why a makeover so soon? Last summer the museum mounted a temporary exhibition titled "Passages," in which African art was displayed against mural-size color images of Africa by the photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. The show was a hit: people liked seeing art in a lively visual context that helped explain its use and meaning. The museum decided to transfer that winning formula to its African galleries.

The design by Matthew Yokobosky incorporates not only Beckwith and Fisher pictures but also short and fascinating documentary films that produce ambient sound. The walls, once neutral, are now multicolored, peppered with generic geometric African motifs and unfortunately incorporate some cheesy looking wood-work.

Overall, the concept is in line with a current style of presenting art in a kind of gift-shop environment, which keeps the eye moving and attention shifting. The results can feel a bit hyper. (I've seen a lot worse.) But maybe this is the way to go for new, Web-surfing audiences accustomed to getting information in quick, non-linear bytes.

Other change, subtle but sweeping, is evident in certain kinds of art that shows up in the reinstallation, which has been organized by William C. Siegmann, the museum's curator of African art.

The display opens with North African work: magnificent examples of 19th-century Berber jewelry from Morocco, ordinarily found in the mu-seum's Islamic collection. And it in-cludes a Nubian tomb sculpture dat-ed around 690 B.C., brought over from the Egyptian galleries. Together these works are reminders that old definitions of what constitutes African art, geographically and chronologically, are under revision.

As to the display as a whole, many objects, by now familiar friends, have been held over. One, a museum treasure, is a naturalistically mod-eled terra-cotta head that may date to the 11th century. Another is a large metal figure of a horn blower, dressed in a neat kilt and a torso-covering bib, his cheeks puffed Out, from the royal court of Benin.

A thematic section labeled "Afri-can Art and Leadership" holds a king's ransom in gold pendants from Ivory Coast, shown near a splendid photograph of an Akan queen, her face sprinkled with gold dust. Among the many masks, look far a Banda piece from Guinea - it's the size of a small rowboat - and a Cubistic clas-sic from Gabon.

For sheer exuberance, though, nothing quite matches a beaded Yoruba crown adorned with ear flaps, doll-like horsemen and a yellow-beaked bird it its peak.

A handful of recent acquisitions are being integrated into the collection for the first time, including a Benin waist pendant from Ms. Riese's group, with exquisite cast figures and the sculptor's mark an the back. Other items have been in the holdings for decades but rarely seen until now.

Mr. Siegmann was recently rummaging through storage, when a small, dust-covered Gelede dance mask from Nigeria caught his eye. Research revealed that it had been in the 1923 exhibition but not shown since. And cleaning uncovered a superb image of a smiling woman's face topped by a pretty headdress, with layers upon layers of paint blended down by time to an algaelike mélange of yellows, greens and pinks.

And there are a few objects, not new, which have never been exhibited before. The most arresting is an emblem of the Leopard Spirit Society of the Ejagham and Banyang people of Cameroon. Made in the form of a large, shallow box, it holds the dirt-caked remains of a ritual meal, with animal skulls, palm-fiber mats and iron utensils arranged around a drum.

This mortuary still life was meant to be fearsome - the Leopard Spirit Society was a law-enforcement agency - and it is. But it's also oddly ornamental, like one of those Victorian mourning pieces that weave bows and flowers from hair.

Brooklyn is probably the only place this assemblage will ever be shown; it's far too fragile to be lent. The same would appear to be true of a smaller and cheerier item, a mud-pack wig worn by Karamojong men in Kenya. With its smoothly modeled bun, trickle of beads and jaunty os-trich plume, it's both an elegant, show-offy wearable and a brilliant abstract sculpture.

Mr. Siegmann's installation leads us gradually in a crisscross pattern from North Africa to South Africa and concludes with a delightful Zulu female figure carved at the tip of a staff, her neck ringed with bead necklaces, her arms outstretched as if she were about to take flight.

South Africa remains underrepresented in museums, in part because its prima-ry art form is beadwork rather than sculpture, and most of its artists are women.

Fortunately, anyone interested in seeing a concentration of this material can do so in a show called "Zulu" at Axis Gallery in Chelsea, a space run by the art historians Lisa Brittan and Gary van Wyck devoted to South African culture. The art on view, much of it 20th century, in-cludes a beaded waistcoat, an amazing marriage cape made of rows of lacelike beadwork sewn in overlapping bands, and a constellation of fantastic hats, peaked and pancake flat.

Galleries like Axis are a valuable supplement to the city's museums and a lively addition to its commercial art scene. New York is so great this way. Everything's here, in one form or another, and there's more of it than anywhere else. It's a place where the sheer number of cultures invites big questions all the time. (Culin must have loved this.)

Brooklyn's African galleries, with their expanded scope and new look, quietly ask and answer a few. What is the "Africa" in African art? A real place, a state of mind, a constantly changing thing. And who does the art of Africa belong to? You.

The reinstallation of the African galleries, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Pros-pect Pork, (718) 638-5000, is on long-term view. "Zulu" remains at Axis Gallery, 453 West 17th Street, fourth floor, Chelsea, (212) 741-2582, through June 10.