When Carol Thompson, the High Museum of Art’s Fred and Rita Richman curator of African art, first saw the 2-foot-tall Suku mask in an exhibition in Washington in 1987, it became one of her favorite works of art in the world.
The mask, currently on display at the High, was included in the inaugural exhibition of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in its new facility on the National Mall, which Ms. Thompson attended.
The museum had existed until then in a variety of townhouses in Washington including one that had been owned by the abolitionist Frederick Douglas.
“It’s a sculptural masterpiece,” Ms.Thompson said of the Congolese mask from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium.
“Even someone who doesn’t know anything about African art can see that it’s a great work of art,” she told Global Atlanta. “The colossal, bold forms of its gigantic face with deeply recessed eyes, were meant to intimidate.”
Known as Kakuungu, the mask’s over-life-size presence inspired submission to authority while engendering respect for elders in the community and at once protecting young initiates from harm.
From the time of her first encounter with this mask, she made a point of seeing it whenever she visited the extensive collection at Tervuren.
When the opportunity of including a work from the Royal Museum as part of the High’s involvement in Africa Atlanta 2014, she immediately requested it and Guido Gryseels, the museum’s director, readily agreed.
The High’s “African Mask/Masquerade: More Than Meets the Eye” overlaps with the exhibition of more than 100 works of art from the Royal Museum’s collection currently on tour as the museum is renovated and are to be on view at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum May 17-Sept. 21.
The Carter library and museum exhibition “Kongo Across the Waters” is the centerpiece of Africa Atlanta 2014, and has been organized to explore connections between the art and culture of the Kongo peoples of western Central Africa and African American art and culture in the U.S., historic and contemporary.
Ms. Thompson said that both exhibitions play an important educational role, highlighting the richness of African cultural and artistic traditions, and their profound and often under-recognized influence on American culture and elsewhere.
The “African Mask/Masquerade” exhibition, she said, is intended to show how within their original contexts, masks were worn with full costumes in performances that served vital communal functions.
The wooden face coverings that hang on museum walls represent just the surface of this dynamic, multisensory art form, she said.
Music, song, and dance were essential to their effectiveness. To suggest their original contexts, the exhibition includes several large photo murals and a short video.
In addition to highlighting the Suku mask on loan from Belgium, the show includes a wide variety of masks, not only from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also from Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Nigeria, all from the High’s permanent collection.
The “Kongo Across the Waters” exhibition focuses on the achievements of the kingdom that ruled over a vast territory from the 14th century, or possibly earlier, until 1891 as an independent state and as a vassal state of the Kingdom of the Portuguese from 1891 to 1914.
Mark Twain’s political satire, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, published in 1907, called attention to colonial era atrocities committed during King Leopold II’s rule, before the region became part of the Belgian Congo.
At its peak, the kingdom covered a territory that is now included in several countries including Angola, Gabon, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an area from which a large percentage of enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas.
Ms. Thompson cited the mission statement of Africa Atlanta 2014 as a key to understanding the importance of both exhibitions in Atlanta, part of a year-long series of events highlighting the city as a center for reinventing the cultural and economic bonds among Africa, Europe and the Americas.
She also praised the review by Jerry Cullum in the ArtsAtl website in which he calls “Kongo Across the Waters,” “one of the most remarkable exhibitions of the art of Africa and the African disapora ever to appear in Atlanta.”
In addition, she cited the work of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at the Georgia Institute of Technology in promoting the interaction of art, technology and the development of community in real and virtual worlds.
As an example, she pointed to the work of Nettrice Gaskins, a Ph.D. candidate at Georgia Tech, who is studying the ties between art, math and geometry and exploring how the intersection of culturally relevant arts-based learning and digital media can be leveraged to create a higher interest among students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
While the interest in Africa art is at an all time high with the sale of African artworks selling at record prices, Ms. Thompson referred to the High’s continual interest in African art ever since 1963 when Gudmund Vigtel became the museum’s director.
She is thrilled that the “Kongo Across the Waters” exhibition is being presented at the Carter library and museum in view of President Carter’s deep involvement with Africa and in recognition of all of the positive contributions that the Carter Center has made, all across the continent.
But she didn’t disguise her pleasure that the High will celebrate the expansion of the African gallery from 2,400- to 4,000-square-feet with the opening of a special exhibition, Recent Acquisitions, on June 28, and that the “Mask/Masquerade” exhibition has been extended to Sept. 14.