My housemate’s point-and-shoot digital camera, which I borrow to take photos for this blog, has a default setting called face detect. Face detect frames your subjects’ heads in little white boxes that show up in the the camera’s LCD viewfinder, presumably to help you take technically excellent pictures of Brock and Jimbo and Boner and the rest of the bros pounding mad shots of Jäger (Canon describes the setting as a “technology that detects up to nine faces in a frame and automatically optimizes the focus and exposure for great people shots.”)
But when I was taking pictures of the Met’s Beneson gallery today, I noticed that face detect doesn’t work on African art. I took ten pictures of figurative statues and masks, and in only one of them did the unnervingly Orwellian feature kick in. So 90 percent of these portraits of men and women, executed in stone and wood and metal by different artists in different countries, weren’t face-y enough for the camera to recognize them as faces.
I wouldn’t have thought twice about the failure of this unnecessary “feature”, except that on the way out of the Museum, I took a few pictures of some 18th century Italian marble and wood statues. And wouldn’t you know it? The camera recognized the European faces as faces about 3/4 of the time. That creepy little box perfectly framed the head of St. Bartholomew, and worse, in a statue of Perseus holding the disembodied head of Medusa, it even picked up on old hair-snakes. That’s right: this technology recognizes grimacing decapitated mythological monsters, but not idealized portraits of black Africans.
In fairness, this wasn’t a scientific experiment, and it’s possible that low light, or the glare off of the glass display cases, threw the camera for a loop. And I doubt it’d recognize the faces in a Picasso or de Kooning. It’s obviously looking for live human faces, and most of the art in the Beneson Gallery is abstracted–bodies are elongated, features broadened, etc. So is the PowerShot really a bigot? Probably not (although I’m still weirded out by that one time it got really drunk and started talking about how Tom Tancredo’s stance on immigration was “right on”).
But the face detect thing does show one of the biggest stumbling blocks that non-Africans have with understanding African art. Euros and Americans put this premium on art that looks like “the real world.” People go nuts for Vermeer because the way he uses light and color and perspective make his paintings look like photographs. But–sweeping, semi-informed generalizations to follow–African art has never really been about art-for-art’s sake, it’s meant to be used. These masks and staffs and pipes and statues only make sense in context–if you see a video of Yoruba dancers wearing headdresses, you can ‘get’ African art much more easily than you can if you just see isolated objects in hermetically sealed glass cases. Obviously, a devotional statue of the Virgin Mary was meant to be “used”, too, but since most Americans are more familiar with Christianity than with the Dogon religion, Americans’ knee-jerk reaction is to prefer a European statue of the Madonna over an African sculpture of a fertility goddess.
The Beneson Gallery does have lots of helpful text explaining the objects’ intended use, and that’s something. But unfortunately, the work isn’t really given a chance to breathe the way it wants to. Like most of the stuff in the Met, it’s decontextualized, but for those of us who aren’t already familiar with African art, these statues are at best less interesting, and at worst, less beautiful or compelling than their European counterparts. It’s a shame. Part of the problem is organizational–the Art of Africa, Oceania, and Central and South America are all part of the same department (AAOA), while American Art gets its own goddamn wing of the Museum. I’m not arguing that each country should get should get as much floorspace as American art, but it would be nice if there were more than a couple modest galleries representing the entire continent of Africa.
In a speech given before the Museum opened in 1869, the Met’s first president said that it’s not enough to have a world-class collection–you need to make the material accessible to visitors. So come on, Museum. Help us understand. Give African art its due–give us more more and better-lit galleries of African Art, more exhibitions of contemporary African artists, and more interactive displays showing the work in context.
And while we love-love the renovated Greek and Roman wing, next time you’ve got $900 million to spare, how about throwing a little of it in the direction of the Beneson Gallery for African art?