BRUNSWICK, Maine — Earth is a thing, a substance — parts of which can be found, quite literally, in some of the objects in "Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa," an exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
You'll see actual earth in the mid-20th-century "bocio," or "power object," made from wood, gourd, shell, textile, and earthy encrustation by a Fon artist in Benin. And you'll see traces of earth in an exquisite mud-dyed "bogolan" cloth, made with the assistance of river soil, sunlight, and leaves, by Nakunte Diarra, a celebrated artist from Kolokani in Mali.
But earth and land are also, of course, metaphors. And so the artists who made these objects, and the roughly 60 other works in show, also busy themselves extending poetic and intellectual associations with the land. As they do so, they tend to collapse the distance between things and metaphors. They mix them, and make from them a new and elastic kind of paste, which is part earth, part motion of the mind. Being artists, they spread this muddy paste in every direction.
"Earth Matters" was organized by the National Museum of African Art, part of the family of Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington, D.C. It is accompanied by an impressively dense 300-page catalog authored by curator Karen E. Milbourne. It comes to Bowdoin in pared-down form (the original show had around 100 objects), but it's well worth a look.
Filling just two galleries at the museum, it places traditional objects, such as Fang reliquary guardian figures from Gabon and a Luba chief's staff of office from Congo, alongside contemporary videos and photographs, sculptures, and paintings.
A downstairs room also screens the South African artist William Kentridge's remarkable five-minute 1991 animation, "Mine." Kentridge's inimitable vision twins surrealistic free association with a relentless, almost mechanistic logic that conjures both the cogwheels of capitalism and the catastrophe of history. Metaphors related to mining, money-making, and exploitation spit from it like pinwheeling fireworks.
Other works in the show also address mining and the mysterious, often disturbing power of what lies beneath the earth's surface. The most visually arresting of these is George Osodi's 2009 large-scale photograph, "De money series no. I."
Osodi is from Nigeria. His image shows young men, their bodies and clothes smeared with chalky earth, on the steep face of an illegal mine they are scouring for gold. Each man stands isolated in a shallow groove of the cliff. There is no horizon. In its precariousness and all-round bleakness, it represents a kind of hell.
Yet the whole image has a lustrous, golden tint. The color itself, shiny, metallic, is a spur to desire, and a metaphor, perhaps, both for desperation and delusional greed.
Elsewhere, the magical, healing, and sometimes cosmic properties of earth come to the fore in works both traditional and modern. The unknown Fon artist's bocio is as remarkable in this sense as anything in the show.
Bocios are common among various groups in Benin and Togo — the former so-called "Slave Coast." They have a potency that combines the magical properties of earth with the historical catastrophe of slavery. Between 1710 and 1810, more than a million men and women were exported as slaves from this region, and of course the illegal slave trade continued well into the 19th century.
Bocios tend to show figures bundled tightly together with tough string. Their form has been interpreted as an aesthetic and strategic response to the trauma of slave trafficking, in which humans were reduced to bundled commodities, their dignity deleted, their individuality erased, their social structures smashed.
These bundled figures are covered with compacted earth, and in one case here yoke together gourds that may have held medicines drawn from powdered earth, minerals, and plant matter. They have an inscrutability that suggests both the mute, shut-down inaccessibility of trauma and more secretive beliefs in powers of healing and spiritual strength connected to the earth.
So earth does indeed matter. Many of the contemporary artists in the show — including the Beninese painter known as Tchif, who uses earthen pigments, cord, and evocatively cracked surfaces to conjure the force of bocio figures in a completely different register — allude to the land's secret powers.
Others tackle the erosion and degradation of the earth in activist or elegiac modes. And there are further themes besides.
If the show has a problem, it is that it is too broad. Reading the catalog is like trying to hang on to a bucking firehose. The ideas veer between concrete particulars and academic flights of fancy in ways that create confusion rather than clarity, and this problem inevitably leaks into the display, which at Bowdoin is rather congested.
Themes and ideas are tossed up only to evanesce, and one lurches between historical periods, artistic approaches, and wildly disparate cultures without enough to hang onto. It feels, in other words, like an early-stage oral proposal for a dissertation, rather than the finished article.
Nonetheless, there are more than enough powerful objects and thoughtful provocations to make the exhibit well worth seeing.
Earth Matters: Land as Material
and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa
At: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine. Through
March 6. 207-725-3275, www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.