From the entrance on Rugby Road, the event itself looked to have wilted in the 92 degree afternoon heat; it was move-in day at UVA, and students rode past the Bayly Building in the backs of pickup trucks, beside their mattresses and couches. Theirs was a trip into the heart of darkness worthy of a new exhibit at the UVA Art Museum, “Man Ray: African Art and the Modernist Lens,” which was celebrated with a low-key three hour community event dubbed Man Ray Day.
Photographs like Man Ray’s “Noir et Blanche,” from 1926, are on display at the UVA Art Museum alongside many works of African art that are featured in other photographs.
On hand Saturday were artists like Kris Iden, who gave a demonstration on cyanotype prints, Ann Cheeks, who led a mask-making exercise, and the Charlottesville Community Drum Choir, which performed African song and dance. These events served as a worthy enticement to the head-spinning exhibit inside, which shows mostly small photographs of people—often famous, like Clara O’Keefe, Billie Holiday and the shipping heiress and 1920’s fashion plate Nancy Cunard—pictured “getting something intense from African art,” said Matthew Affron, one of the museum’s curators.
The exhibit places photographs taken of African art by famous artists between the first and second World Wars—Ray, the American-born, Paris-dwelling photographer who was at the fore of the Surrealist movement, as well as Charles Sheeler, Walker Evans and Alfred Stieglitz—next to the works of African art that appear in the pictures. The result is a curatorial feat that challenges museum-goers to weigh their perception of African art—mostly symmetrical wooden sculptures with rigid formal qualities—against their display in the highly affected, shadowplay-heavy images of Ray, or the more documentary leanings of Evans.
All of these postmodern layers seemed to create some spatial confusion among the exhibitgoers, who shared tours Saturday. During one, a group of about 20 were being shepherded by Affron through rooms full of small sculptures and photographs. In trying to get close enough to one such photograph—Clara Sipprell’s image of the German intellectual Max Weber, beholding with curiosity a small African idol at an arm’s distance—a woman almost tripped into a glass box containing a sculpture by Man Ray. The tour group sucked the air from the room, as if waiting for the sculpture to topple.
A narrow miss—the tour went on. “It’s terrible in museums, that you have to coexist with these objects,” Affron quipped. But seeing the objects themselves alongside the photographic displays only begins to undo the work that went into visually mystifying African culture, popularly regarded as “primitive” at the time. (The exhibit shows a pamphlet from a 1923 show at the Brooklyn Museum called “Primitive Negro Art.”) No mistake that many in these images were women, sometimes naked: Ray and other commercial photographers during the period leveraged the exotic lure of African objects to lend those qualities to women. But on the other hand, the exhibit argues that the images served a role in linking Black intellectuals of the Harlem Rennaissance to their African roots.
As the furor over whether to change the format of UVA’s community radio station seems to have subsided for now, WTJU reminds listeners of free form radio’s strong point: its ability to take a sweeping view of the musical landscape, this week in service of the Big Easy.
In celebration of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, 91.1FM joins the fray with a week’s worth of programming centered on the music of New Orleans. Highlights include Bruce Penner and Darrell Rose, who discuss the African roots of New Orleans music on Wednesday at noon; Sandy Snyder’s “The Eclectic Woman” show explores the women of Crescent City Thursday at 9pm; and Stephanie Nakasian’s “Steph-o-scope” program features the music of one of New Orleans’ most famous tooters, Louis Armstrong. All this, if God is willing and da creek don’t rise.