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Baule: African Art Western Eyes is a model of cultural sensitivity and respect. The author, Susan Mullin Vogel, a director at the Yale Art Gallery and a leader in the field of African art for decades, has lived among the Baule, and her deep knowledge, curiosity, and understanding is evident on every page. «There are four Baule words for looking and seeing in general,» she writes, «and these are used in revealingly specific ways in reference to works of art. They clearly indicate the kind of looking that is appropriate to different kinds of artworks, and they differentiate among objects that anyone can look at, objects that must never deliberately be looked at, and all the degrees between.» Baule art has had a worldwide following for more than a century, but its subtleties and meanings have remained elusive. This important book is filled with pictures of Baule masks, paintings, sculptures, and house decorations--both antique and contemporary. But Vogel also includes documentary photographs of village brides wearing gold jewelry, wood carvers old and young, masked dancers exhorting children to follow them to a ceremony, drummers and other musicians, costumed actors, young men and women with their «spirit» spouses (carved figurines intended to bring them a mate)--in other words, art in context. The book's design is both hip and exquisite; all the material--pictorial and narrative--breathes with contemporary life.
My brief review of Susan Vogel's African Art Western Eyes will be as if I were writing a letter to Susan Vogel herself. Dear Susan Vogel, I could not fly East to see the exhibit of Baule art from the Ivory Coast, but the accompanying book is almost as vivid as attending the exhibit. Even though African Art Western Eyes is about the Baule, it could be a primer for how art is used, how it works in ethnographic societies world wide. The main thing that impressed me was your compassion, your natural humanity at work in your investigation of Baule art. There are none of the «politically correct» words I often read in books about ethnographic art, but instead a more humble, more respectful, more willingness to discover attitude that allows the reader to experience his or her humanity in the process.