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New art exhibits explore African ethnography and 20th-century African-American identity

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You think you know who you are, but you don't. You create yourself from moment to moment, changing your identity or inventing a new one according to situational context. Identity is a shifting negotiation between race, biography, imagination, even clothing. And there's something unknowable in there, too.

Two current shows explore African and African-American identity in all its complexity without ruining its mystery. At Duke's Nasher Museum, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist presents an unconventional retrospective of the under-recognized African-American painter who portrayed black life from Parisian Négritude to Chicago's South Side. N.C. State's Gregg Museum, as it raises funds to build a permanent exhibition space, splits a showing of Phyllis Galembo's large-format photographs of West African ceremonial and tribal costuming between regrettably remote galleries at NCSU and Meredith College.

Art and ethnography are balanced differently in Galembo's two shows. A professor of photography at the University at Albany, SUNY, Galembo traveled in Nigeria, Benin and Burkina Faso throughout the last decade, documenting elaborate tribal masquerades in posed portraits. But while each image of southern Nigerian kings, queens, priests and tribal chiefs at Meredith has a detailed description of the costume and its accessories, as well as its cultural and religious significance, the ceremonial costumes go wholly undocumented in the show at NCSU.

Instead, the NCSU show gives only basic identifications in captions such as "Ekpe Masquerade, Calabar, Nigeria, 2005" at the ends of each wall of images. We aren't told what god or spirit Ekpe is or what elements of the costume are significant. Neither are the photographs taken in the moment of ceremonial performance. Strangely verging on a fashion shoot, it's dissatisfying compared to the fully elaborated show at Meredith.

Then again, emphasizing ceremonial costumes as artifacts rather than mere ethnographic objects recovers their fantastic, transformative nature from the colonial reduction of the museum tag. As the spoils of a far-reaching empire, African cultural items debuted in fin-de-sicle Europe in huge anthropological expositions attended by millions, such as the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 and the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908, both in London. Seeing the flattened, stylized facial features of African masks for the first time, early Modernist artists such as Braque and Picasso churned those aesthetic characteristics into their art without much regard for their specific tribal sources. All African masks were treated as more or less equivalent, regardless of the gods and spirits they depicted. The subsequent European market for masks fed back into their native cultural roles, competing with their ceremonial uses.

It could be argued that the way Galembo's work is presented at NCSU might prompt viewers to imagine the ceremonial purpose of the masquerade rather than just file it under the heading "African stuff." Their opacity is provocative. Another possibility is that Galembo is pointing to the social value of the labor that went into the costumes' construction rather than their religious meanings.

These possibilities are evident in two images of the water goddess Mami Wata, one from Alok Village and one from Akpabuyo Village, both in Nigeria. In Akpabuyo, the goddess' mermaid body is painted upon fabric spread wide like a poncho, with cowrie shells sewn on to depict fish. A head flap that features two crude, red-daubed eyeholes is topped by a darkened human skull. In Alok, however, the goddess' body has no mermaid characteristics. Instead, the character wears a sturdy wooden mask with a face on each side, fully covering the entire head like a bucket. The mask is topped with a platform on which the goddess sits, holding a serpent across her shoulders, flanked by a schoolboy in jacket and tie with a book under his arm.

The Akpabuyo image looks like it could have been taken as a ritual was about to begin. Mami Wata seems present in her anxious posture. But in the Alok image, the person in costume is at rest, posing to show its detail to Galembo's camera. It's fascinating to compare the two representations and see different visions of the same goddess, idiosyncratically expressed.

The beauty of the Nasher's Archibald Motley comes through in comparison as well—between Motley's vision and the reality he represents. Curated by Duke art history professor Richard J. Powell, the exhibition covers Motley's productive years, from 1919 to 1960, in 42 paintings, foregoing the standard retrospective route by grouping the works thematically rather than chronologically. Instead of telling the story of an artist's development, the show presents Motley as a major American Expressionist painter.

In this, it answers a big question: Why isn't Archibald Motley better known? How come museum gift shops stock Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden calendars but not Motley ones? His Jazz Age scenes of raucous nightclubs are Harlem Renaissance slideshow standards, but his name remains outside the mainstream that Lawrence and Bearden inhabit. While the other painters are wonderful stylists, Motley is a full-blown Expressionist.

These are the same dancers, musicians, gamblers and drunkards that populate many Jazz Age paintings. But Motley shows more than just a cast of characters in an urban landscape. Placing the beautiful and the grotesque next to each other is one of the hallmarks of Modernist work. Instead, Motley reveals their concatenation: Beauty emerges from the grotesque, and vice versa, in heightened moments on almost every canvas. Stepping over a realist line, Motley's vision is as breathtaking as it is anxious. It's certainly not the stuff of kitchen-wall calendars.

Motley was born in New Orleans in 1891, but he grew up in Chicago, receiving classical training in painting as a teenager at the Art Institute of Chicago. But the Realist and Impressionist brushstrokes and compositions of his early work tapered off throughout the 1920s. Around the time of a Guggenheim-funded year in Paris at the end of that decade, his perspective flattened and warped, and his compositions became more like tableaux than stylized depictions of the world.

Motley wanted to know and show all facets of life, from the socialites to the hoods. In "The Plotters" (1933), men drink and smoke at a table. One leans forward to talk to the other, who's rapt. It's a claustrophobic image, fractured down the middle by a background figure's arm, which somehow reaches between the two conspirators to point at nothing. A picture of two boxers, one black and one white, hangs on the wall behind them. The race politics of the boxing image combines with the jammed perspective to make a tense, uncertain scene.

Motley frequently used paintings within his paintings to set up dialogues between present and past, or to crash contexts and social norms into each other. "Between Acts" (1935) is a frank portrayal of burlesque performers relaxing backstage. A top-hatted man stands with his back turned in the open door. He's either another entertainer, used to the sight of naked women, or a gentleman there to express admiration. A stern, oval portrait of a society woman looks down upon the women, judging them. They ignore her. They've worked hard, earning a break.

"The Argument" (1940) might be Motley's quintessential work. Men argue in a close group on a corner by an overflowing trashcan. Neighbors watch the row from their porches and windows. The depiction of the men verges on the too-dark faces and oversized red lips of blackface, but they retain individual character. The dynamic of their argument can be read, but the bystanders lack defined features.

Motley shows two meanings of "argument" here—street corner posturing and classical rhetoric. Men jawing at each other in the street is, after all, public discourse. The men become real in the voicing of opinion and the silent non-participants are the shadows. To expound is to expand; to be quiet is to vanish.

After its Nasher debut, Archibald Motley continues on to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Cultural Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. After that, Motley will likely be known as a great American Expressionist whose critical vision reveals more about race in the 20th century than almost any other artist of his time. Maybe he'll finally get that kitchen-wall calendar after all.

This article appeared in print with the headline "From the mask to the real."

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