Arts District

BMA’s New African Art Exhibit Explores Humans’ Relationship With Birds

The earthy, exotic exhibit Beyond Flight is on display through June 17.

By Lauren LaRocca | December 26, 2017, 1:03 pm

Gitenga Mask. Mid-20th century. -The Baltimore Museum of Art
Arts District

BMA’s New African Art Exhibit Explores Humans’ Relationship With Birds

The earthy, exotic exhibit Beyond Flight is on display through June 17.

By Lauren LaRocca | December 26, 2017, 1:03 pm

Gitenga Mask. Mid-20th century. -The Baltimore Museum of Art

Humans have been fascinated by birds for millennia—their songs, their movement through air, water, and land; migration patterns; flying in formation; their extraordinary range of color and form; and their symbolism for freedom and connecting with the divine.

They frequently appear in artistic work, when they make up less than one percent of living things, says the Baltimore Museum of Art associate curator of African art, Kevin Tervala. “They’re found materially or representationally all over the world,” he says. “Why, time and time again, do we look to birds for what it means to be human?”

Together with the BMA’s former associate curator of African art, Shannen Hill, Tervala put together the earthy, exotic new exhibit Beyond Flight: Birds in African Art, which opened at the BMA on Dec. 20 and will remain on view through June 17, with a tour led by Tervala on Jan. 5.

A museum renovation in 2015 tripled the amount of space dedicated to African art, and part of that expansion included the creation of a gallery used for rotating exhibits, including this one. 

“The expansion also allowed us to increase the different ways we can talk about African art in the permanent installation galleries,” Tervala says. “In those galleries, we have nooks, or sections, that talk about African art from various different perspectives, for example, temporal, thematic, or ethnic group.”

Beyond Flight combines the dramatic, whimsical, and spiritual elements of birds and humans’ relationship to them. Pieces, from 19th- and 20th-century sub-Saharan Africa, are made almost entirely from organic materials—hair, clay, feathers, bone, wood, plants, fur—with original mud intentionally left intact. There are representations of birds from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Uganda. Rooster, hawk, ostrich, crow. An owl with human features.

The show is organized into sections that act as food for thought about the ways in which birds have been appreciated, understood, and utilized throughout African history, in art as well as daily life. One case shows the use of birds decoratively on everyday objects. (“Put a bird on it” takes on a whole new meaning here.)

Two large cases hold ceremonial masks depicting birds, many of which were used to help infuse the creature’s essence into that of the wearer, who would then act as if transformed into the bird itself. In another case are herbalists’ iron staffs, with birds used to symbolize ideologies and beliefs. Another section shows how birds were used to indicate social status, how feathers were sometimes symbols of power and authority in Africa.

A nice touch on the part of the BMA are imagined written narratives alongside each case, short snapshots created to coincide with each display case to help bring the work to life. For example: “Crouched in the tall grass of the Nigerian savanna, a Hausa hunter begins to bob his head. He twitches, pecks, and cocks it to the side. Above the vegetation, all that is visible is the movement of the man’s headdress (burtu), a bird decoy made from the skull of a Ground Hornbill. Here in the wild, in the moments before a kill, the hunter’s success is measured by his ability to leave his body and become, for several minutes or hours, like a bird.”

The awe-inspiring Pende masquerade headdress is the show’s centerpiece, flaunting hundreds of feathers that catch the light to reveal their colors. The mask arrived at the BMA in a somewhat ruffled state. BMA object conservator Christine Downie worked on the incredibly delicate piece for three months to restore its feathers to their original state, or get them as close to it as possible: dusting, cleaning, and repairing feathers with splints, combing and sewing the ends of feathers back together.

While Beyond Flight features African art, Tervala believes the fascination with birds is universal; the show could have just as easily centered around early American art, he asserts, with its rooster weathervanes and birds sewn into quilts.




Meet The Author

Lauren LaRocca is a freelance writer for Baltimore magazine, where she covers arts, entertainment, music, and culture.



You May Also Like


On The Town

Eight Baltimoreans on The Loss of Summer Festivals

Mayor Young’s cancellation means no Artscape, AFRAM, or other large gatherings.

Arts District

WTMD’s First Thursdays Go Virtual for the Rest of the Summer

The planned overhaul of the annual festival will be postponed until next year.

Arts & Culture

Selections from Baltimore School for the Arts’ Senior Photo Class

BSA seniors might be the last students to work in a darkroom setting for months ahead.


MaxSpace

Movie Review: The King of Staten Island

Pete Davidson plays a version of himself in this shaggy, endearing, if overlong, comedy.

MaxSpace

The Maryland Film Festival Goes Virtual

From June 12-21, shorts and feature films can be accessed directly through the festival’s site.

MaxSpace

Movie Review: Palm Springs

'Groundhog Day' meets the rom-com, with winning results.

Connect With Us

Most Read


How These Surprise Quarantine ‘Flower Bombs’ Are Helping Families in Need: The paper-plate flowers have become a massive fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House.

Amid The Economic Chaos, Downtown Partnership’s New President Has a Plan: Shelonda Stokes was just named president after serving in an interim leadership role.

Bottoms Up Bagels Rolls Into Harwood: Owners debut their new “BUB Hub” at 28th and Greenmount.

The Womanist Reader Creates an Online Library of Black Literature: A Baltimore writer curates an evolving list of women writers for her women followers.

Boxer Yahu Blackwell Is An All-Everything Businessman: The 33-year-old Baltimore native is the owner of the new Rita’s Italian Ice in Hampden.