Arts and Entertainment

STANDING ROOM ONLY: Museum takes us back to Africa

Trapped behind museum glass, displayed pristinely on a metal stand and always with an accompanying placard offering academic insights that are more antiseptic than illuminating, a cultural artifact too often is robbed of the vitality that brought it to life.

An ancient arrowhead stuck in a sealed glass case is no longer a way of life, an artisan’s once-valuable tool of survival loaded with social relevance, but a curiosity. Explanations, however well-meaning and wise, cannot rehabilitate the arrowhead’s alienation from the world. It is no longer of-a-piece, but simply a piece — one more piece of dead, dusted-off history. Ironically, this is how objects are turned into art.

If someone put your toenail clippers in a museum, dated it and gave it a name, extrapolated on its ritual usages, that instrument of simple hygiene would suddenly become an exotic relic. Folks would “ooh” and “aah” at it, kids would yawn with boredom, and everyone then moves along to the next artifact of supposed interest and importance.

This is the crime of no context. It’s why most people secretly hate going to museums. In the relentless effort to excavate, remove, name and tag everything under the sun, Western science builds its store of knowledge while simultaneously neutralizing many of life’s sacred mysteries.

Of course, without public museums — without the tireless work of curators, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, philanthropists — innumerable of the world’s cultures would be all but forgotten today, lost to history, and great works of art would hang unseen in the elite parlors of wealthy patrons. Museums, it goes without saying, are a great boon to democracy; unfortunately, they are also poor purveyors of the complex, colorful reality of actual, and a bit dull to boot.

The folks at the Seattle Art Museum, then, have the right idea with their new multi-media installation, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back, which runs through May 19. Directed by a group of about a dozen African and American artists and scholars, this exhibit seeks to contextualize African works through creative elements such as dancing, music, staging, special effects and conversation. Pieces will be presented along with video and audio commentary featuring personal memories and opinions, as well as primary oral narratives. For the duration of the exhibit, lectures will be presented on a wide range of topics, some by artists-in-residence.

It’s a revolutionary idea, and a long time coming. To give the exhibit a basis in performance is to strip away the fetishizing tendency that separates and isolates so many cultural objects. Here, much of the authenticity — and hence the actual life-force, the everyday spirituality — of African art is to a degree restored, granting perhaps a better understanding of such diverse cultures as the Yorube, Mende and Maasai.

For more information and a complete schedule of events, call 1-206-654-3100 or visit the web site at

This Friday, 8 p.m., at the Oak Harbor Elks Lodge, is Komics to Benefit Kids Comedy Show, featuring such jokesters as Debbie Wooten, Kermit Holiday and Chris Alpine, the last of whom has appeared on “Star Search” and MTV. Proceeds benefit Whidbey Island children through the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation. Tickets are $15 and available at The Daily Grind and Wind & Tide in Oak Harbor, the Coupeville Pharmacy and Miriam’s/Videoville in Coupeville. Call 1-877-331-7343 toll-free for more poop.

A Springtime Concert featuring Nancy Nolan and Maureen Rorex will be held this Saturday, 7p.m., at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. Also to perform are Clipper Anderson, Chris Harshman and Brent Purvis. Call (360) 221-8268 for tickets and info.

Whenever I hear the term “world music,” I reach for my pistol. Nevertheless, Samie Award-winning band SisterMonk Harem will play their own peculiar and undoubtedly exotic brand of “world music” at one of those house concerts in Langley this Friday, from 8 to 10 p.m., with a potluck beginning at 7 p.m. Pre-registration required; call (360) 221-5370 for reservations.

A really great sleeper of a movie was released on video last week, and if you don’t mind some cussing, you should see it. It’s called “Sexy Beast” and it stars Ben Kingsley as an absolutely insane and irrepressibly foul-mouthed British gangster on a recruiting mission. Rent it!

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 19
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates