In darkest Piccadilly

The RA's 'Africa: the Art of a Continent' is that and more: an attempt to represent all African art since time, and art, began; EXHIBITIONS
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The Independent Culture
SOMETIMES the Royal Academy works best as an exhibition space when you don't feel that you're in Burlington House. "Africa: the Art of a Continent" is successful in many ways, but the first triumph is its installation. Walking through the crowded and various rooms one forgets all those familiar gallery spaces and the shows we have seen in them. It's like being in a new ethnographic museum, a modern foundation funded and staffed by young and clever curators.

A sort of accelerated museum, and I imagine that there will be critics who object to the bite-like nature of the successive displays. But isn't it true that in most great museums there are too many objects for a visitor to comprehend and store in the memory? Certainly the RA exhibition can't do justice to all the art of Africa over many millennia. But it does give these rapid, exciting introductions to the nature of art (including very many artefacts) in all of Africa's major regions and dominant civilisations. I loved it, and when I've time to learn more about the culture of these regions the show's catalogue - a hefty pounds 50, but worth it - will be my starting point.

Talking of starting points, the first exhibit is one of the first things made by man. It's a hand axe from Olduvai, in modern Tanzania, and is more than a million and a half years old. Tom Phillips, the Royal Academician who is the overall curator of the exhibition, remarks that since this subject had no predecessors no aesthetic criteria apply to it. I wonder if this is true. Yet it is salutary to be so often reminded that we always look at African art through the aesthetic conditioning of modern European culture. All through the exhibition are objects of use whose practical functions must have been uppermost in the minds of their makers and owners. But we look at these stools, head-rests and other pieces of furniture as though they were sophisticated 20th-century sculptures. We can't help doing so. If this is wrong, then we must all become archaeologists and anthropologists in order to rid ourselves of the wrong kind of education.

The exhibition is obviously a tribute to these academic disciplines and an introduction to their concerns. One expert on west Africa, John Picton, tells us that the differences in African languages may be as great as, for instance, those between English and Chinese. He wants to demonstrate, and who can blame him, the breadth and complexity of his researches. Yet the RA is concerned to simplify its presentation. It's done with much clarity. There's a "Prelude", then each of 12 galleries takes a different area, starting from ancient Egypt and Nubia, working down through eastern Africa to southern Africa, to Zaire and the Congo in central Africa, then to west Africa and the Guinea Coast and lastly an intense look at Morocco and Algeria, countries with a Mediterranean coastline.

Beginning this continental tour, one is struck by the way that the room given to ancient Egypt and Nubia is so much more lively and intimate than the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum. How accustomed we are to the ponderous, often not very inspired, magnificence of the Bloomsbury collections, and how human the RA account appears. Particularly beguiling are the little statuette of a man, made out of basalt in the late predynastic period, and then the one that everyone loves, the Nubian Girl with a Monkey and Dish, carved from ebony. Surely one is allowed to prefer this exquisite sculpture to massive, ugly baboon-gods in stone? The argument that we should always try to appreciate African works of art within their own cultural boundaries may be "correct". Already, though, the suspicion arises that we are going to prefer African domestic art to its more formal and ceremonial counterparts.

The Nyamwezi throne, for instance, is both a throne and a rather simple high-backed stool. It has gravity but is not ornate. As a late-20th-century art critic, I happily say that I respond more to works in this exhibition when they are not too elaborate, don't go in for endless embellishment and don't dissimulate. Masks, however remarkable their manufacture, leave me cold. I prefer the human face, and looked through the exhibition for portraiture rather than ritual masquerades. No doubt such Eurocentricity deserves to be scolded.

A moving section of the exhibition (whose Honorary Patron is Nelson Mandela) is devoted to southern Africa. Notable here is the Linton Slab, on loan from Cape Town, which is the largest piece of separated-rock art in all Africa. The world's earliest portable painting, done about 45 centuries ago and found in Namibia, is here too. It's a flat, round stone on which are painted three figures. The Linton panel is probably 18th- or 19th-century; it's far more elaborate. But the point is that these two works are connected by beliefs and tradition: they share the same iconography and vision.

Very ancient pieces in the RA are awesome just because of their antiquity. We do have the feeling of "prehistory". There are many more exhibits from the 19th and 20th centuries because this was the period when they were first collected, preserved and catalogued. Yet the whole show, following the concerns of most African religious art, is ancestral. So many sculptures insist on the wise and powerful influence of any people's forebears. The message is so insistent, however, and so evidently mistaken, that this celebration of African culture is also like its entombment.

However much we study this African art for its essence, purity and its concise representation of cultures, we know that it will soon be corrupted by the contemporary global and technological world.

People who worry about the future of art usually look to western Europe and the Americas when they make their predictions. Africa is not yet in the frame. It will be: and this exhibition not only introduces us to the subject but warns how much will shortly be lost.

! 'Africa: the Art of a Continent': Royal Academy, W1 (0171 439 7438) to 21 Jan.

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