MFA exhibit looks at the role of photography in the interpretation of distant cultures.
To Western eyes, the mask-like faces and naked loins of carved African sculpture speak of primitive appetites from the Dark Continent.
Like other kinds of colonialism, the 19th-century "discovery" and marketing of native art from Africa, and later Oceania, transformed ritual and ceremonial objects from everyday life into commodities for foreign consumption.
Now an informative exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts uses striking objects to reveal how early Western collectors and photographers turned cultural artifacts into exotic works of art.
The show, "Object, Image, Collector: African and Oceanic Art in Focus," does far more than merely display objects that appear exotic to Western tastes. Breaking new ground, it explores how photography shifted Western perceptions of objects initially collected for anthropological study into highly prized works of art.
Adding a new dimension to such exhibits, it showcases photos by Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Sheeler, Clara Sipprell and Walker Evans along with publications by Carl Einstein that influenced how the public viewed art from Africa and the Pacific Islands.
The MFA's first exhibit of its kind, it borrows more than 50 objects including three-dimensional pieces and textiles from 20 Boston collections.
Museum Director Malcolm Rogers described the exhibit as "a wonderful marriage between object and photography. ...It's the very first exhibit of its kind to highlight art of Africa and Oceania through local collections," he said during an opening tour.
Located in the second floor Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa Gallery, the exhibit runs through July 18.
Christraud Geary, senior curator of African and Oceanic Art, and Karen Haas, the Lane Collection curator of photographs, organized the exhibit. Rather than just show objects of remarkable craftsmanship and beauty, they've focused on how photography and other kinds of presentation shaped public perceptions.
A scholar who has written extensively on the subject, Geary said French and European artists were fascinated by turn-of-the century exhibits of African art because it let them express feelings that were limited by Western traditions.
"Artists were the first to embrace these objects. Exhibitions in art museums and galleries followed and also played a role in their interpretation, but the impact of photography in promoting this shift has been neglected," she said.
In the early 20th century, artists as different as Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Man Ray were incorporating elements of African art into their works.
"Artists (from Europe) were attracted by the forms of African art. They saw it as specimens, not art," Geary said. "They felt anything that caught their fancy was an object to be celebrated."
Born in Germany, Geary has traveled widely in Africa, performing field research in Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa. She served 13 years as curator of the photographic archives of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Regarded as one of the founders of Modernism, Sheeler emerges in this show as a master photographer whose images dramatically shaped public perceptions of African art.
Haas said she was fascinated "to realize the very early role that Sheeler's photographs played in the reception of African art as works of fine art rather than ethnographic objects."
Visitors will see many remarkably crafted objects that will dazzle their eyes and imaginations. By displaying old photos of these pieces, Geary and Haas challenge viewers to wonder whether they're perceiving them within the context of their original construction or whether their unfamiliar appearance tricks us into only seeing reflections of our own stereotypes.
In other words, do we collect them as works of art because we don't understand what they really once were? How would we feel about someone from Gabon who spent lots of money acquiring pictures of poker-playing dogs because they thought they revealed something deep and mysterious about American culture?
The exhibit also breaks new ground for many viewers who are likely more familiar with art from virtually everywhere else in the world than Africa.
Visitors examining for the first time a reliquary guardian figure from Gabon or a Congolese wood and shell hermaphrodite figure will not only see examples of stunning beauty but mirrors to their own perceptions about unfamiliar cultures.
Asked how visitors new to African art might best appreciate the exhibit, Geary said, "I think they ought to look at the form first. Form speaks to us," she said.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is open seven days a week. Hours: Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.; (Thursday and Friday after 5 p.m. only the West Wing is open).
The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and Patriots Day.
General admission (which includes two visits in a 10-day period) is $20 for adults; $18 for seniors and students 18 and older and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission for students who are university members is free as is admission for children under 17 during non-school hours.
On school days until 3 p.m., admission for youths 7-17 is $7.50. No admission fee is required after 4 p.m. on Wednesdays although donations are welcome.
For information, call 617-267-9300 or visit www.mfa.org.