Beyond Compare: The Bodes Museum Opens Its Arms to Africa, But Keeps Its Feet Firmly in Europe

The Bodes Museum, Berlin |Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode-Museum, 27 October 2017 – 24 November 2019

Entering a room full of Christian Gothic art, there stands a formidable Congolese spiritual idol. With his hands proudly on his hips and his feet rooted firmly on the ground, shards of metal protrude from his wide wooden chest. A symbol of protection, his huge porcelain eyes survey the space before him. In its original context, this ‘power figure’ would have kept watch over a local Congolese community but today his eyes fall upon something very different: Michel Erhart’s Virgin and Child, a protective votive from fifteenth century Germany. Caught eye-to-eye, these two protective statues meet for the first time across time and space. It’s an unexpected but welcome encounter in an otherwise traditional Western art museum.

This is part of the Bode Museum’s new exhibition Beyond Compare: Art from Africa.  Over seventy African objects formerly housed in the Ethnologishes Museum [Ethnological Museum] are being temporarily exhibit throughout the Bodes’ Museum until 2019, when they will move to their new home in the Humboldt Forum. Curators Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine and Paola Ivanov have paired each African objects with a European double that evokes a similar idea, from power to gender, beauty to memory.

It is an exciting move. Recovered from a context where these objects were deemed ethnographic artefacts, their inclusion in the museum restores their status as works of art. Situated alongside masterpieces from from Ancient Greece, Byzantine and Italy, their technical sophistication, ideological complexity and cultural significance becomes evident. Meditating on similar themes, it is interesting to see how African and European thoughts complement and contradict one another. Whilst Erhart’s Virgin and Child casts a protective aura through its divine grace, the Congolese power figure’s evokes protection with a brutal, strong body. Intriguingly, there is much in common between a seventeenth century bust of a Nigerian king and one of a Roman Emperor. With beautifully symmetrical faces, both noble figures evoke poise and fortitude, each starring directly at us, the viewer.

The installation provokes very worthy questions: why do galleries and museums continue to categorising objects according to time and space? And why do they still tend to categorise Western objects as art and Eastern objects as artefacts? By ignoring these outdated museological conventions, Beyond Compare proves that contemporary museums can be exciting spaces for exploring postcolonial ideas if we restructure our perceptions of Eastern art.

In regards to the wall text, the curators note that they have taken a deliberately objective approach; there is little interpretation, leaving the audience to undertake their own inquiry. Abandoning ethnographic perceptions of Eastern art, the objects are not attributed to a tribe or community but a single artist (using a name where possible). It is a big step that situates Western and Eastern artists on a level playing field, rather than fetishising foreign art objects as exotic fancies.

Clearly, a lot has been done to elevate the status of African art and to simulate a meaningful conversation between the two continents. Nonetheless, on leaving the exhibition, I sadly felt that the African art had not been given a proper chance to speak for itself. The conversation remained framed by Western ideas. By only providing limited details about the African artworks, a huge degree of the symbolism and cultural significance of these objects was illegible, which left audiences to infer their meaning in relation to the nearby Western objects. Also, given that the curators chose not to give many descriptive details of the African art, it feels odd that they chose to detail how the African objects had been acquired by Western scholars and aristocrats. It draws them back into the European narrative rather than allowing them to speak about their own rich cultural histories.

At the end of the day, the hierarchy of Western and Eastern art remains intact. Perhaps it is asking too much that African objects could appear as absolute equals in a historic Western museum. The catalogue almost implies as much. It talks about introducing the African art into the Bodes’ ‘peerless’ collection, as if to suggest these temporary inclusions could never truly rival the museum’s classical masterpieces. Ironically for an exhibition called Beyond Compare, comparison seems to be the crux of the exhibition. For all the ways that this exhibition opens up towards Africa, it always seeks to compare the objects to the West. Whilst I still greatly admire the spirit of this exhibition, I feel it would have been stronger if the curators were brave enough to give African art its own voice; one just as loud as its Western counterparts. Maybe this is what these object will find in their new home at the Humboldt Forum, but it’s a shame it couldn’t have been achieved here alongside the Bodes’ collection.

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