Review: Out of Africa, into south London

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THE FREIGHT terminal at Gatwick Airport has seen some strange sights, but this was a novel addition to its list: the pieces of a huge, brightly coloured construction of cloth and wood, together with a startling selection of ghoulish human and animal figures made from material stuffed with foam-rubber. This was the Igbo Ijele, an example of the largest mask in Africa, bound for the newly opened "African Worlds" exhibition at the Horniman Museum, where it is now the centrepiece of London's first permanent African gallery.

The Horniman in Forest Hill, south London is a much- loved local museum, but this new permanent exhibition will widen its appeal. It was built in 1901 by the collector and tea merchant Frederick Horniman, who gave it to the people of London for their "instruction, enjoyment and recreation". The striking turreted building was designed by the Arts and Crafts architect Charles Harrison Townsend and the "African Worlds" show has been assembled in his fine barrel-ceilinged South Hall, where the designers Jasper Jacob Associates have created a dramatic, visually exciting effect. "I'm not interested in doing anything that's been done before," explained Anthony Shelton, the museum's curator, "and so I asked the designers to dream."

The centre of the hall is dominated by three huge fibreglass panels, one displaying the 14ft Igbo Ijele and the others very large Bedu (Ivory Coast) and Dogon (Mali) masks. "We wanted to allude to Africa and so we used a sun-baked, terracotta colour paint on the outside of the display cases," says Shelton. "But this is a modernist exhibition, not an African installation work. We've used glass, aluminium, steel, fibreglass and Nextel, which was developed for the American space programme. It absorbs light, which makes it a very effective background for showing off some of the material."

The Horniman has more than 17,000 African objects in its collection, and so it has been a hard task to select the 200 or so that are included in the exhibition. "We chose pieces not only for their aesthetic qualities, but for what they told us about the continent's history. For instance, the Ethiopian Christian paintings displayed are not of the highest quality, but they do make the point that Christianity is a strong force there as well as Islam."

It is an African collection unlike any other in Britain. "Most of the ethnography museums have gathered material from the countries which were Britain's former colonies. By contrast, we had a German curator from 1947-65 who had a completely different purchasing policy, and for the last few years we have deliberately concentrated on French-speaking Africa in order to create a more balanced picture."

A distinctive feature of the exhibition is that it shows how the cultures of the Caribbean and Brazil have been indelibly influenced by their African population. One of the most dramatic exhibits is the Midnight Robber head- dress from the Trinidad Carnival, a towering contraption featuring an awesome skeleton seated on a golden throne.

Displays of this kind in Europe are often criticised for only seeing through Western eyes. To redress the balance, the Horniman Museum collaborated with many African art historians, including Joseph Eboreime, the director of the National Museum in Benin, who undertook two years' research to interpret the Benin bronzes in their collection. "We asked Benin to tell us their story rather than telling the 19th-century British story."

Another key figure in the project is Emmanuel Arinze, the former director of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments. "Emmanuel said at a very early stage that we needed a huge mask," explained Janet Vitmayer, the Horniman's director. "He commissioned the Ijele for us and visited us often, bringing videos to show its progress."

What makes this exhibition so exciting is the emphasis on the visual effect. Labelling is kept to a minimum, but plenty of information is available and videos under the bigger masks show how they are worn and used in ceremonies.

But the Horniman Museum is not just interested in historical Africa. Above the main exhibition space, there is a balcony which will be used for a changing show of the work of contemporary African artists, opening with the paintings of Osi Audu.

Horniman Museum, 100 London Road, London SE23 (0181-699 1872/4911); admission free