"With African art people usually think of masks and sculpture that are used for tribal rituals, religious purposes, kings' and chiefs' regalia, or objects of everyday use in a village setting," says Columbia College art history professor Kate Ezra. "They don't think of Africa as being part of the contemporary art world." For the new exhibit "Contemporary African Art 1950-2000: Reframing Tradition" Ezra and her student curators had to limit their search to local collections to economize, but she says she was "surprised by the extent and richness of the pieces that I found." Take Serpent, an abstract steel sculpture by Sudanese artist Amir Nour, who earned his MFA from Yale, has lived in Chicago for three decades, and currently teaches at Truman College. It's made of 34 identical pieces of curved steel that can be assembled in innumerable combinations. "His works are very minimalistic," says Ezra, former curator of African art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "At first glance they seem to have a very tenuous relationship with the real world. But as you look more closely at them and read more about what he's about, you realize that all of those shapes have a connection either to landscape forms from his native country, Sudan, or types of objects or things one would see in that country. It's typical of almost all the works in the exhibit, in the sense that in some way the artists are taking an aspect of the experience of living in Africa and working with it and creating something new out of it." Also featured are printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya (Nigeria), photographer Seydou Keita (Mali), ceramist Magdalene Odundo (Kenya), and others, representing nine sub-Saharan countries in all. The exhibit opens Monday, February 12, at the Columbia College Art Gallery, 72 E. 11th. It's open from 10 to 4 and it's free. The official opening reception is next Friday, February 16, from 5 to 7 at the gallery; call 312-344-6156 for more information.