Art News & Views

Challenging Conventional Perceptions of African Art


New York. More than 140 masterpieces created between the 12th and the early 20th century; complemented by maps, drawings, and excavation and ceremonial photographs were displayed in the Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Gallery 199. The show started on September 21, 2011 and continued till January 29, 2012.

This international loan exhibition brought together masterpieces drawn from collections in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth; Seattle Art Museum; Cleveland Museum of Art; Minneapolis Museum of Art; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art; Brooklyn Museum of Art; British Museum; Welkulturen Museum, Frankfurt; Volkerkunde Museum, Berlin; Dapper Museum and Quai Branly, Paris; Museum aan de Stroom [MAS], Antwerp, and the Afrika Museum in Tervuren, Belgium; and Museu Nacional de Arqueologia and Museu Etnográfico-Sociedade de Geografia, Lisbon. Such a body of work has never before been assembled in an exhibition and Heroic Africans presented an opportunity to bring to life oral history in visual terms and to put a face on Africa's pre-colonial history.

Over the centuries, artists across sub-Saharan Africa have honoured eminent figures in their societies using a variety of naturalistic and abstract sculptural idioms. Emblems of rank, scarification patterns, and elaborate coiffures were also added to the subjects in order to evoke the individuals represented. The arrival of Europeans as traders, then as colonizers, led to the dislocation of many of these sculptures from their original sites, thus, today they are seen primarily as timeless abstractions of generic archetypes. Heroic Africans reexamines the sub-Saharan African portrait sculptures in terms of the individuals who inspired them and the cultural values that informed them, providing insight into the hidden meanings behind these great artistic achievements.

A look at one of Central Africa's most dazzling sculptural genres unfamiliar to American audiences is a highlight of this exhibition. During the nineteenth century, Hemba masters in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo paid tribute to their leaders through these free-standing wood sculptures, impressive for their scale and elegance. An unprecedented assemblage of twenty-two works from this tradition is gathered together for the first time and offers viewers an opportunity to examine the subtle distinctions that may be discerned among masterpieces that rank among the most impressive artistic achievements from sub-Saharan Africa.

The works featured were among the only tangible links that survive, relating to generations of leaders that shaped Africa's past before colonialism, among the Akan of Ghana, ancient Ife civilization and the Kingdom of Benin of Nigeria, Bangwa and Kom chiefdoms of the Cameroon Grassfields, the Chokwe of Angola and Zambia, and the Luluwa, Hemba, and Kuba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The exhibition will travel to the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, where it will be on view from February 26 till June 3, 2012.

Tags: art, antique

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