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Art Review

An amazing world of art from Tanzania

Sukuma dance figures (52, 60, and 56 inches tall) made of wood, metal, and pigments.

Sukuma dance figures (52, 60, and 56 inches tall) made of wood, metal, and pigments.

PORTLAND, Maine — Tanzania is a big, diverse country with more than 46 million inhabitants, a cosmopolitan history, and one of the most attractive national flags out there. You know much about its art?

No? Nor I.

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The main reason we almost never see art from Tanzania, even in museums with collections of African art, is as dismaying and apparently arbitrary as so much else about modern African history.

When the first collections of African art were formed in Europe and America in the 20th century, tastes were overwhelmingly Francophile. The French had extensive colonial interests in northern, western, and central Africa. Mainland Tanzania, however, had been a German colony from 1891 until the end of the First World War.

So even among the growing number of Western collectors and scholars interested in African art, Tanzania’s art was almost entirely overlooked. Germany’s loss in both world wars, and its division in 1949, which shelved several noteworthy collections of African art behind the Iron Curtain, entrenched the bias.

Tanzania’s own political fate didn’t help. Even as the study of African culture boomed in the 1960s and 70s, Tanzania — which was formed in 1964 when newly independent Tanganyika and Zanzibar united (“Tanzania” combines the two names) — was run according to a Maoist program of African socialism. This left the country largely isolated.

“As a result,” writes Gary van Wyk in the first-rate, scholarly catalog accompanying “Shangaa: Art of Tanzania,” at the Portland Museum of Art, “only a few hundred Tanzanian art objects have ever been illustrated. Most are in black-and-white, hard-to-find publications, published in German.”

Tanzania is incredibly diverse. . . . By the 13th century — thanks to an East African gold rush — the coastal territory of Tanzania was at the center of what historians have described as the world’s first global economy.

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“Shangaa” is a serious attempt to remedy the situation. It was organized by QCC Art Gallery of the City University of New York (CUNY) under van Wyk’s direction. It’s a lively, beautiful, thought-provoking show made up of sculptural objects, primarily from German and US collections.

The display, which emphasizes education over aesthetics, reminds us that these objects were once used for healing, for expressions of authority, for communication with the spirits, and for celebrations of milestones such as initiation.

Is it OK to acknowledge that they are also, in many cases, riveting to behold?

I assume so. “Shangaa” means “to amaze” in Swahili, the primary shared language in East Africa. Employing the word as the show’s title is a nice way to emphasize the role of “shangaa” within Tanzanian culture. But it also reminds us that encounters between different cultures can induce states of awe and disturbance, and that this, as much as edification, is part of what we go to museums for.

Three Sukuma dance figures, one female and two male, carved from wood and up to 5 feet high pulse with a shuddering vitality. A carved wooden platter made up of separate dishes symmetrically arranged and connected by curving lines is superbly refined. And in its compression and ghostly expression, a Hehe mask with right-angled cavities for the eyes and mouth and five small teeth is surely some kind of masterpiece.

“Shangaa” is out to put such objects into some kind of meaningful context — and to do a fair bit of debunking along the way. One of the ideas it pushes is that Tanzanian art traditions are today as vital as ever. Several video screens showing, among other contemporary performances, competitive dance rituals involving dangerous snakes bear out the point. It’s hard to look away.

We’re also reminded of how the makers of these objects are constantly adapting to new realities even as they continue old traditions. Masks partly inspired by the now global culture of Halloween, for instance, are used in the same traditional performances as much older masks.

Similarly, a new genre of masquerade called “mang’anyamu” (meaning “animals”) developed in 1994 by the sculptor Martins Manjibula Jackson uses skin-covered animal masks. In doing so it builds on mid-20th-century male initiation masquerades which used masks representing not only wild animals but cars and airplanes. And these in turn were adapted from earlier traditions, in a corkscrewing line of continuity and change which makes a mockery of the idea of timelessness or authenticity.

The other, related insight pushed hard by the exhibition is irrefutable: Tanzania is incredibly diverse. More than 120 ethnic groups coexist within its borders. Most have long histories there.

By the 13th century, in fact — thanks to an East African gold rush — the coastal territory of Tanzania was at the center of what historians have described as the world’s first global economy. The cultural cross-pollination triggered by trade, along with the relentless exploitation of resources and military conquests it often invites, have been hallmarks of the region ever since.

Arabs, Portuguese, and Omanis all competed for dominance, primarily over the hideous and ever-growing slave trade, but also over such products as cloves and ivory.

New England, with its demand for piano keys and billiard balls, was intimately connected with the ivory trade well into the late 19th century, when Connecticut was a center for the processing of ivory. (By 1860, elephants had been hunted out of what was then still Tanganyika, so hunters pushed farther inland.) Meanwhile, large shipments of cloth bound for East Africa regularly left Salem.

Three main caravan routes connected the various tribes of Tanganyika with the foreign traders, as well as with the inhabitants of neighboring lands. So much intermingling over such a long period meant that, as van Wyk explains, the classic African art history paradigm of “one tribe, one style” simply doesn’t fit in Tanzania.

He goes further: Such classifications by tribe tend to reflect, he says, “the colonial powers’ need to . . . fix people to places, fit them into ethnic categories, and then have them see themselves through those categories.”

And yet there are common convictions, among them a belief in the interconnection of the material and spiritual realms, and common tendencies, including an inclination to use sculptural objects as instruments for the creation for communal well-being.

As elsewhere in Africa, masks have always played a special role: In performances which integrate drama, dance, and music, they have helped to teach ethical behavior. They give order to the cosmos; They simply entertain.

“Shangaa” is full of masks, almost all of them mesmerizing. One especially interesting row of them demonstrates both the influence of foreigners and the impact of modernity: A Makua mask representing a Catholic novice or nun is placed next to a Makonde mask of a Masai warrior, then a turbaned Sikh, a Portuguese civil servant, a Portuguese colonist, and a wrinkly old European man. All date from the second half of the 20th century, and reveal the influence of Nampyopyo Kulombanungu, an innovator in Makonde masquerades who highlighted social and ethnic types.

One earlier Makonde mask represents a hare, a “trickster” animal with special powers. Another is a circle-shaped face with the ears flattened beside the eyes. Both were collected in 1906 by Karl Weule, a father of German ethnography and crucial figure in the Western reception of art from Tanzania.

Sponsored and directed by the German government, which had brutally suppressed the Maji Maji Rebellion only the previous year, Weule spent six months researching and collecting in southern Tanzania, a region which was proving particularly troublesome to the German government.

If his mission was to bring about greater understanding, this, in the minds of his superiors, was in service to a larger goal: more effective colonial domination. The German state, itself only 30 years old, was trying on a new mask — a new idea of itself. The world waited.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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