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TO JULY 9
By creatively pairing traditional and contemporary works from across Africa—about 100 in all—the National Museum of African Art’s “BIG/small” exhibition reveals that striking artwork comes in all sizes. A 6-foot red chili pepper, made of wood and topped with a green umbrella handle, is actually a symbolic coffin used in modern-day Ghanaian funeral processions and conveys the career of the departed, such as a farmer or a spice seller. Displayed nearby is an inch-high copper-alloy chili-pepper weight. Used in the 18th century by Ghana’s Akan people to measure gold dust, it indicates pepper’s status as a prized commodity. A plastic Coke bottle (pictured) designed to commemorate the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta packs a visual punch, but not because it’s 7 feet tall. Thousands of beads woven into green zigzags, red diamonds, and white stripes cover the bottle, similar to the designs in another exhibit piece, a beaded pin. Both were crafted by Ndebele women of South Africa’s Guateng province. The power of woman is more fully expressed by a Baga mask from Guinea. The elaborately carved wooden head measures some 4 feet high and rests on a dancer’s shoulders. Donning a shawl and raffia skirt, the dancer, typically a man, is transformed into a towering representation of femininity at weddings and harvest festivals. But equal in stature is a pendant of a female figure made by the Dogon peoples of Mali. The elegant figure sits with one knee raised, her head held high. Her simplified features and contained pose convey the monumentality of a sculpture, though she’s only an inch and a half tall. Being grand, the exhibition suggests, isn’t about size—it’s about attitude. The exhibition is on view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. through Sunday, July 9, at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (Hetty Lipscomb)