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At Harvard, Images in a Distinctive African Style

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The several buildings and collections that make up the Harvard University Art Museums encompass riches beyond count, though the art of Africa isn't among them. Not that Harvard owns no African art. It owns plenty, but most of it is housed, as it has been for well over a century, in a separate on-campus institution, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where it stays.

In an effort to get Africa into the larger art historical mix at Harvard, this season the art museums have scheduled three concurrent exhibitions devoted to African material, old and new. One of them represents a first-time collaboration with the Peabody Museum.

This integration of resources is long overdue for a university that has the largest Afro- American studies program in the United States. It also makes timely sense, given a growing public interest in the hugely diverse stretch of cultural terrain known as "African art." Numerous exhibitions across the country are being devoted to various aspects of it this year. And as an art historical field, it is generating some of the most exciting scholarship around.

All three exhibitions at Harvard are modest in size but strong in concept, in design and in their accompanying publications. They are organized by young curators with close ties to the university, and two of the shows are devoted to contemporary African photography, a category barely noticed in the West before a decade or so ago.

"You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou KeĀta and Malick Sidib´" at the Fogg Art Museum showcases work by two still-active photographers from the West African city of Bamako, in Mali. A generation apart in age, each helped shape distinctively African photographic styles.

Mr. KeĀta, now in his 70's and with international stature, picked up the rudiments of the medium from two older Bamako photographers, Mountaga Dembel´ and the French colonial resident Pierre Garnier. In 1948 he established a local practice making portraits, often in a postcard-size format. Over the years he has produced thousands of negatives, most of which are still extant.

He did much of his work in controlled outdoor settings, often in the courtyard of his home. In place of European-style painted scenes, he used boldly patterned African fabrics, including his own bedspread, as backdrops. When his subjects wore robes of contrasting design, the optical clash could be exhilaratingly vibrant. He also devised flattering poses — in one, a subject is authoritatively seated, in another she reclines on cushions as if at home — that added up to a signature style.

Also working in Bamako, beginning in the 1960's, was Malick Sidib´. The pictures for which he has gained attention are his on-the-spot shots of the city's night life during the heady early years of national independence, when Western pop music and fashions transformed the look of urban youth culture.

But this change can also be seen in Mr. Sidib´'s wonderful studio portraits, particularly when they are paired with Mr. KeĀta's, as they are in the Harvard show, which has been organized by Michelle Lamuni²re, an assistant curator in the department of photography at the Fogg.

Here, in pictures made some 20 years apart, there are marked differences in clothing styles, in the sitters' choices of props and even in body language. At the same time, no firm generational lines can be drawn: one of Mr. Sidib´'s clients poses with his favorite sheep, while one of Mr. KeĀta's appears in American hipster attire. What is certain is that throughout the better part of the 20th century, both photographers have been creating innovative, distinctive and immensely stylish modern images of, and for, Africans.

A second exhibition, "Beyond Decorum: The Photography of Ik´ Ud´" is installed in the Sert Gallery of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, next door to the Fogg. Organized by Mark H. C. Bessire and Lauri Firstenberg, the show originated at the Maine College of Art in Portland, where Mr. Bessire is director. But there is a strong Harvard connection: both curators studied at the university and Ms. Firstenberg is now a doctoral candidate in its art history program.

Born in Nigeria in 1963, Mr. Ud´ has lived in the United States since 1981 and he has shaped a versatile career as a photographer, performer and founding editor of the handsomely designed glossy magazine called aRude, in which art, fashion, celebrity and attitude meet.

In all of these roles, Mr. Ud´ is essentially a conceptual artist who combines personal panache with a needle-sharp socio-political wit. In his series of "Cover Girl" photographs, begun in the mid-90's, he reworks the covers of international magazines to give them new content: his version of GQ, for example, features his own androgynous-looking face and a headline announcing "Conservative Skirts for the Working Man"; his blood-red Cond´ Nast Traveler cover has a 19th-century print of a trans-Atlantic slave ship and a headline reading "The Sardine Pack."

In addition to these twists on race and gender, Mr. Ud´ also deftly plays with a specifically African content. In his "Uli Portraits" series, nude models are covered with painted patterns, based on a form of body painting associated with Nigerian Igbo culture, from which the artist is descended. Similarly, his personal style, which includes makeup and gender-bending apparel, has sources in mask performances that include men in female roles.

Mr. Ud´'s public persona and his photography are extensions of each other. Both are physically manipulated, hybrid creations, at once Western and African, or neither of the two. He's some new kind of thing in the process of developing.

Back at the Fogg, the work in the exhibition "Marking Places: Spacial Effects of African Art" is closer to familiar notions of African art. Organized by Kristina Van Dyke, another doctoral candidate in African art at the university, the show reverses a pet exhibition theme of recent years: rather than asking how context affects the meaning of traditional African objects, Ms. Van Dyke explores ways in which objects shape their environment.

Carved Yoruba house posts turn a patch of earth into a royal enclosure. Intricately woven baskets filled with jewelry transform a Tutsi home into a high-style House Beautiful. An ornate masquerade costume transports a dancer symbolically from the earthly to the spiritual realm.

Ms. Van Dyke's subject is broad, poetic and accessible, and she has given it arresting form, illustrating many of her points with objects on first-time loan from the Peabody to one of the neighboring Harvard art museums. Her show will have an extended but temporary run at the Fogg, as happened with another exhibition of African art, drawn from the William Teel collection, installed there a few years ago.

When the earlier exhibition went up, there was talk of establishing a gallery for African art in the Fogg, where it would join Renaissance sculpture and Impressionist painting, the classics of Western art. The plan for a permanent space didn't come to pass at the time. But why can't Ms. Van Dyke's show be regarded as marking the place for it to happen now?

''You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidib e'' remains at the Fogg Art Museum, 32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, Mass., (617)495-9400, through Dec. 16. ''Marking Places: Spacial Effects of African Art'' is on longterm view at the Fogg. ''Beyond Decorum: The Photography of Ik e Ud e'' is at the Sert Gallery, Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, 24 Quincy Street, Cambridge, (617)495-9400, through Oct. 21.

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