“Common Hells, Private Heavens”: I’m in Commonweal

“Common Hells, Private Heavens”: I’m in Commonweal May 5, 2015

reviewing a show at the National Museum of African Art:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!” Behind us stretches a huge black coiling thing that looks like a well-fed python. “It’s just a video,” one kid says in a subdued voice.

We’re in the depths of the National Museum of African Art, where “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” will run through August 2. The show, which originated in Frankfurt before coming to the United States, features artworks inspired either by Dante’s great poem or by the poem’s setting in the three realms of the afterlife. It’s a big, meandering show. A visitor’s winding progress from hell in the lowest level to heaven on the ground floor has rich symbolic resonance, but it’s easy to get lost—and perhaps that fact has its own symbolism.

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