via NYTimes, additional links courtesy of RGL:
Keeping Watch Over the Dead
By HOLLAND COTTER
Published: October 5, 2007
Is she an infant, a wrestler, a goddess or what? Sunk in thought or entranced by sounds only she can hear? Her flawless skin is dark but glows. Her body is organic but abstract, with seeds for eyes, succulents for arms, and mushroomlike shoulders melting into breasts. In the perfect sleek globe of her head, her face is a scooped-out heart.
You'll find this stunner, beaming with ambiguity, in "Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was carved in the 19th century by a Fang artist in what is now Gabon. Sometimes referred to as the Black Venus, she resides in Paris today. And she's just one of many magnetic images in a gorgeous, morally and spiritually vibrant show that is sure be one of the sleepers of the fall art season.
Why, with such attractions, is it a sleeper? Because exhibitions of African art almost always are. Even when museums give them the luxury treatment, as the Met does here, they remain on the fringes of our awareness, in a compartment labeled esoteric, as we make our beelines to Rembrandts and Rothkos. We are the sleepers, somnambulating past extraordinary things,
So, sleepers, awake. Change your habits, alter your route, see what you’re missing. This African show isn’t esoteric at all. Anyone familiar with Western religious art, particularly art before the modern era, will recognize its basic theme: life as a cosmic journey homeward, with parental spirits, embodied in materials and images, coddling, counseling and chiding us every step of the way.
Multimedia: Slide Show
The opening gallery is about connecting cross-cultural dots. First, and splendidly, we get Africa, in a sculptural group from Cameroon with two figures — the head of one explodes with feathers — perched atop a bark container that once held the skulls of generations of men from a single family.
Next is Europe, represented by a 13th-century silver bust designed to encase the cranium of a Roman Catholic saint. Then Asia, in a miniature version of an Indian Buddhist stupa mound that in its monumental form might have held the bones of Buddha himself. The lesson: When it comes to venerating the earthly traces of the honored dead, very different cultures share common ground.
Apparently not common enough, though, to let museum audiences easily embrace African art on its own terms. Western Modernism has seen to that. Through much of the 20th century, African art was valued primarily as source material for a European avant-garde. You know the story: Picasso sees an African mask — it doesn't matter which one — and, presto, there’s Cubism, an art that really counts.
Alisa LaGamma, the Met curator who organized "Eternal Ancestors," acknowledges the real investment that Modernism had in African culture. Several of the show’s most beautiful items have an early-20th-century art world pedigree. A spectacular Fang reliquary figure, combative and unflinching, once belonged to the painter André Derain. (The Met owns it now.) A jocund Kwele mask from Gabon was prized by the Dada poet Tristan Tzara.
But Ms. LaGamma also makes it clear that "Eternal Ancestors" is based on a non-Eurocentric, postmodern model. It is intended, as far as is ever possible in a Western museum, especially one as staid as the Met, to offer a view of traditional African art as it might have been seen through African eyes.
This approach is distilled in a small, enclosed space that is set apart for the display of three ancestral shrines and accompanied by wall labels of a kind seldom found in mainstream museums. It reads: "This room is devoted to a series of intact shrines. Upon entering, we request that you show respect for these devotional works."
Whatever devotion may mean to you, chances are that once you read those words, the atmosphere in the space will feel, however subtly, charged, the objects alive and purposeful, awake. So they would have been for the people who created and lived with them, and who valued them at least as much for what they concealed as for what they revealed.
All three shrines consist of alluring figures set atop, or emerging from, receptacles of some kind. Two of the figures are Fang in origin, similar in style to the Venus. The third, all face and spindly legs, was made by a Kota artist from thin strips of light-reflective copper laid over a forked wood frame.
What's hidden is the contents of the shrines' containers: bones, ashes, bits of cloth or earth. These materials are associated with people who died but are considered to be still present through their earthly remains in the lives of their descendants.
To the original owners of the shrine, its value lay in these relics, not in the replaceable sculptures that safeguarded them. To the late-19th-century European colonialists who first collected many of the works in this show, notable for its wealth of important international loans, the sculptures meant everything, the relics nothing. Usually they were just tossed away. The three intact shrines at the Met are rare survivals.
Yet sculpture is, of course, the visual substance of this show. And once Ms. LaGamma has suggested the life-and-death concepts that animate it, this is what we see: a symphonic sweep of reliquary forms and traditions from across Central Africa. From Cameroon comes a carving of a crotchety-looking, bent-kneed man with a cap — or is it coiffure? — balanced on his head like a meringue. This figure is a commemorative portrait of a Bangwa chief named Fosia, carved by the artist Ateu Atsa (around 1840-1910). Commissioned during the chief’s lifetime, it would have stood sentinel over his skull after death.
Full-length Fang figures, taut as clenched fists, are among Africa's most familiar sculptural types, although bust-length Fang heads, also meant to top reliquary containers, are no less gripping. One of the most famous, visiting from the Ethnographic Museum in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, is in the show. Its round, mirrored eyes give it a look of blank astonishment; the palm oil with which the wood was once saturated still oozes and drips from its surface like blood, or sweat, or tears.
Photo: Metroplitan Museum of Art
Then, a coup de théâtre: an ensemble of dozens of Kota reliquary figures, their shovel-shape faces made of gleaming copper and brass. Ganged together, side by side in rows of display cases, they are the visual equivalent of a brass choir at full volume, a Corelli fanfare. Yet each piece, whether as smooth as a leaf or dense with ornamentation, is unlike any other.
The show ends theatrically too, though whether with tragedy or comedy is hard to say. One of the final images is also one of the most startling: a reliquary figure from Congo. Standing six feet tall and made from layers and layers of cloth, including red European blankets, the figure is bulked up to resemble a giant female doll, all but nude, with brick-red skin and a smile of what looks like avid glee on her face.
Who is she? What is she? Several things. She is a portrait of someone who has died and also a receptacle for that person's mummified body. She is an image of a specific category of ancestor, one recently dead. But she will fully claim status only after she has been buried with the relic she holds.
There's a remarkable short 1926 film of such a burial playing in the gallery, and the mood of the occasion is hard to gauge. A titanic soft sculpture, like the one in the show, is being carried by a crowd out of the village. The procession stops beside a trench-size open grave. The villagers try to slide, then tip the figure into the ground, but it keeps bobbing back upright, like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloon that refuses to be held down. At this point, with the struggle still in progress, the film stops.
The point of such burials is symbolic: The dead enter the ancestral realm below the earth, from which they will return, transformed, to attend the living, who will themselves become ancestors. That, at least, is the idea, although as enacted here it has an antic, clownish air, more carnival than funeral. The lesson: In death, as in life, ambiguity rules. The second lesson: When treated like the living thing it is, art has a mind of its own.