Drawing a bead on functional items as ‘art work’

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

There is an idea common today that almost anything can be “art.” This probably has something to do with a certain Frenchman who exhibited a urinal as an “artwork” many moons ago; not to mention more recent absurdities. But, despite the looseness of the “art” category, there are occasions when it resists some of the things that museums and curators try push into it. A case in point is the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama’s “Beads in Africa” exhibition.

Perhaps inspired by the stunning spectacle of last year’s El Anatsui exhibition, which featured artworks by an African artist that were literally made from garbage, the museum has now decided that the time has come to dust off items of African beadwork and elevate these to high art status.

“It is the aim of this exhibition to present this incomparable art form to the world within the context of an art museum,” the museum’s director, Tsutomu Mizusawa, writes optimistically in the exhibition catalogue.

In view of some of the things that have been designated art in recent years — dirty mattresses, pickled animals, various forms of excrement, etc. — this may seem like a reasonable and indeed laudable goal. It could even be viewed as a kind of artistic “affirmative action,” substituting liberal morality for aesthetic merit in an attempt to gain parity between the art of the First and Third Worlds.

This subtext seems to be signaled by the inclusion of a solitary 18th-century Dutch print, showing European traders offering a variety of manufactured goods, including a bead necklace to a group of Africans. This seems intended to remind us of the trading function of beads and to possibly evoke the lopsided economic arrangements that also resulted in the slave trade and later the colonization of Africa.

But cultural politics aside, there are several problems with treating these relatively recent examples of African beadwork as art. Some of these are general problems and some are peculiar to this exhibition. On the general side, African bead art has many other functions besides piquing the interest of collectors, connoisseurs, and curators in the developed world. Because of this, any attempt to abstract it from its context and treat it as high art is bound to run into difficulties.

This is immediately clear when you enter the exhibition. Most of the items that encounter your eyes are made to be worn. This is even true of some of the more ambitious and outlandish creations, such as a stuffed-cloth, bead-bedizened bird and other similar figures from Cameroon. These are actually hats, although they are confusingly listed as “masks.”

Those items that cannot be worn, including a zoomorphic chair and bull-shaped footstool are still functional. Even those items that have no apparent practical use, such as some of the head figures, clearly have some religious, totemic, or spiritual function.

Rather than high art, it would be more appropriate to treat these items as examples of craft art, but here, too, there is a problem, especially in a country with such high craft-art standards as Japan. Although some of the items have a redeeming slapdash naivety, many of them lack real skill and technique. Many of them are tatty and worn, while there is also a monotonousness to a great many of the designs that almost suggests they are all the product of the same tired and disinterested pair of hands.

Although there may be much better examples available, the items here would be much better off in the seclusion of an ethnographic or anthropological museum, where experts could count the beads and analyze subtle differences to arrive at conclusions regarding tribal technology, trade routes, religious practices, and sociological significance. Indeed, this is where these items were originally sourced from, namely the National Museum of Ethnology. By putting them under the demanding spotlight of an art show, the poor things tend to suffer.

This leads us to the problems peculiar to this exhibition. The reason the El Anatsui exhibition was so aesthetically successful was because the art — and it was art! — had an expansive quality that combined aesthetic impact with a playful but not intentional disrespect of artistic and curatorial conventions. A large part of this was due to the fact that the artist was allowed a very prominent role in designing and setting up the exhibition, while much else was left to bonne chance!

This is very different from the scene that greets visitors at this current show. Rather than the Africans being in control, the curators seem to have stripped off their office-wear and awkwardly dressed up in the beads and done a kind of precise, finicky dance that has drained the works of all their mojo. The items are presented either as disembodied items, dwarfed on vast white shelves, or pinned the wall like poor dead butterflies.

“Beads in Africa” at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama runs till Oct. 21; open 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.moma.pref.kanagawa.jp.