Bridging Continents: Connecting African and Latin American Art

at Aldo Castillo Gallery, through April 30

It’s long been known that Picasso’s key breakthrough toward cubism–1907’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon–owes at least as much to his study of African sculpture as to the late works of Cezanne. Yet most African-influenced works seem much weaker than the real thing when the two are exhibited together, as they were in a big show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art a decade ago. African and pre-Columbian sculptures, made for use in religious or tribal rituals, have a directness, a preternatural potency, that can make even a complex contemporary painting look like a limp collection of overintellectualized designs. When Western artists draw from Africa, predictability generally rules. Minimalist composer Steve Reich’s Drumming, a long piece of music inspired by his study of African drumming, is an almost academic presentation of rhythmic effects with none of the lively irregularities of actual African music.

Gallery owner Aldo Castillo takes a big risk in presenting “Bridging Continents,” a mix of more than 100 modern and tribal objects, including contemporary Latin American art, traditional African works, a few pre-Columbian pieces, and European-styled sculpture and furniture from Latin America. Some, but fortunately not all, of the show’s groupings confirm my initial bias.

The surrealistic image of a sleeper in Alberto Donat’s La siesta has an almost classical balance: dark lines on the left are matched by similar lines on the right; there are red areas above and below the figure. A modest Kuba textile from Zaire, exhibited below Donat’s painting, has only simple geometric designs, but the two that are visible in this folded cloth are very different from each other. One has two mazes, each a dead end, while the other is a maze with a single pathway and many entrances and exits. The nonrecurring forms found in this and the other Kuba textiles in the show are quietly ecstatic in effect–the longer one looks, the more diverse the shapes become.

African sculpture has a similar ability to astonish. Two life-size figures from the Ivory Coast were used in funeral processions and in rituals in which a dancer pounds one repeatedly into the ground, seeking to ensure fertility. The ultrathin forms give the wood a surprising presence: its curves are close to right angles, and the elongated lines seem to almost be etching the air.

These figures also have scarification patterns on their faces and torsos, which take the form of geometrical grids in the wood–presumably realistic renderings of this traditional practice. The regularity of these patterns enhances the statues’ contrasting curves. Their teeth are a set of grooves and raised areas resembling the scar grids, making the patterns of altered flesh look like natural parts of the body. Ritual scarring is presented as emending, rather than transforming, the human form.

Castillo says when he first came to Chicago from Nicaragua he was struck by the way different groups seemed to separate themselves from each other, particularly Latinos and African Americans. For him, the influence of Africa on Latin America is so deep “that it’s not even obvious” at first. He sees religion as essential to the art of both groups; the use of objects as symbols plays an important role.

But what excited me most in this show were works having a complex interplay between a central shape–usually but not always a human figure–and smaller repeating forms. The figures, whether in tribal sculpture or contemporary paintings, have a kind of primal, iconic power; the patterns place those figures in a larger context of nature or geometry, of ideas or beliefs. There’s a rich give-and-take between the idea of object-power and the artist as creator of almost musical rhythms, between the expression of individual identity and a wider, more world-embracing context.

The wildly patterned paintings of Santeria deities by Cuban-born New Yorker Luis Molina look a bit cartoonish at first, but they’re subtler than they seem. The elaborate geometric designs surrounding the central figures seem to emanate from the feather patterns of one or more birds also depicted. The interchangeability of human and animal forms is a key feature of much African art; here the subtly modulated colors create a continuum between human figures, nature, and abstraction, while the swirling patterns give the figures some of the odd, almost radiant energy of African sculptures.

Brazilian-born Adriana Carvalho’s work is less spiritual than physical. Five welded steel sculptures of faces are a bit like African masks, but with a playful, childlike touch. Metal coils resembling Slinkys or silver springs serve for hair; other body parts are made from funnels and saucers. In Doia, slanted eyes echo the curved ridges in the rusted metal that makes up the face. In these meetings of fierceness and goofiness, human features are found in the metal scrap that populates our dumps; human identity is constructed out of detritus.

Carvalho’s three “Creature” sculptures have metal rectangular centers with metal spikes protruding from all but one of the six faces. These minimalist versions of African fetish objects are rusting irregularly, and the spikes point in slightly different directions. Here minimalism’s geometric perfection is replaced by the vagaries of decay and the human touch.

A large fetish figure from Zaire provides a useful comparison. Its brightly painted head sits atop an armless figure wrapped in long dried rattanlike bands. Scattered unpredictably beneath this surface are carved figures, pieces of wood, bits of glass and metal, and protruding nails. Used to seal a pact between two villages, this object has a mixture of repetition and randomness so extreme as to make it symbolize the complexity of the whole world. It’s all there: the human form, harmony (regularity, symmetry), and chaos in an encyclopedic collection of junk.

It’s only natural that such objects are immediately gripping. They are expressions of religious, hierarchical societies that view the universe in terms of magical powers. They are meant to overwhelm, to make one feel awed before them. Modernist art is the product of a more democratic, egalitarian ideal. The viewer often has an interpretive role equal to that of the artist; each person is invited to construct a somewhat different image. But the strongest modern artist in this exhibit, the Colombian Luis Fernando Uribe, manages to fuse elements from both kinds of art making.

In his series of paintings “The Shadow of the Body,” five of which are presented here, silhouettes of figures are covered with patterns taken from nature: dense skeins of leaves and an occasional open-jawed beast. But some of the figures are set against deep black backgrounds; a few are themselves solid black. These black areas don’t blend in smoothly with the design, but stand out from it, almost as if each picture had two different levels: nature’s beings and a realm of primal shadows, unknown and unknowable forms. The viewer is drawn both to creatures that are richly patterned accretions of forest and jungle and to dark shapes that seem to carry unseen powers. The atavistic worship of the unknown that’s buried in us all is here combined with a vision of humans drawn from, and stitched beautifully into, nature’s weave.