In and Out of Africa

In and Out of Africa

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Goncalo Mabunda; The Hope Throne, 2008; deactivated welded weapons, leather; 4.4 x 4.2 x 3.1 ft.

Gargantuan in its ambi​tion, "The Global Africa Project" seeks to gather the strands of African culture as they stretch across the globe. Now on view at the Museum of Arts and Design, the exhibition offers about 200 works of photography, furniture, jewelry, fashion, and ceramics. Notably, not all of the nearly 120 artists are African or even of African descent, but they respond to African themes from their studios around the world. Besides selecting artists and designers from countries like Senegal and South Africa, co-curators Lowery Stokes Sims and Leslie King-Hammond included many from the United States, Germany, France, Japan, India, and Haiti, among other countries.

From a fine-craft perspective, "Global Africa" offers something remarkable: It traces how traditions filter through the African diaspora. Thanks to the curators' inspired groupings, viewers can appreciate the similarities between the gele headwraps of West Africa and the sculptural hats of Evetta Petty, owner of Harlem's Heaven Hat Boutique. They can compare the sophisticated minimalism of Alabama's Gee's Bend quilters to the improvisational quilts of the Siddi, an ethnic group descended from East Africans who arrived in India as slaves, servants, and soldiers. They can see how South Carolina-based Mary A. Jackson seeks to preserve the sweetgrass basketry of her ancestors, while Jackson's South African counterparts toy with PVC-coated telephone wire to make colorful objects such as butterfly wall sculptures and bulbous flower planters.

"The Global Africa Project" also explores cultural hybrids, the marrying of African artistic conventions with those from other continents. One example is Serge Mouangue's Blood Brothers, a trio of stools depicting squat men. Vaguely reminiscent of extraterrestrials, these playful figures are carved in the style of the Bamileke tribe from Cameroon, Mouangue's homeland. Now that the artist lives in Japan, he has been inspired to add Asian flourishes: He bathed Blood Brothers in the reddish sap of the Japanese lacquer tree and constructed a kimono with fabric from the Dutch company Vlisco, whose prints are popular throughout Africa.

Meanwhile, the show's survey of modern design goes further than deflecting stereotype; it also reflects how craftspeople, living in Africa or part of the diaspora, mix modernism with traditional forms, especially in the realm of furniture. Several artisans riffed on West Africa's low wooden stools and dining tables, only their versions use metal, glass, and recycled plastics. For other artists, modern design is a means of political expression. Senegalese designer Ousmane M'Baye conjures beauty from environmental wreckage; he built an exuberant kitchen cabinet using old oil drums. Likewise, Gonçalo Mabunda of Mozambique made a chair by welding deactivated weapons.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, there are orphan pieces of mosaic art and graphic design, not to mention an irrelevant (though beguiling) Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of Grace Jones. Sure, the overall effect of the show is chaos, but perhaps that's the point: African influences are now so widely dispersed it's impossible to pinpoint a single aesthetic from such a vast continent. At its best, though, "Global Africa" is more linear than that; certain pairings help the viewer to draw correlations, to see the common African root of this tangle.

Christy DeSmith is a freelance arts writer in Boston.