Beginning October 2, 2007, The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents a special exhibition of acclaimed sculptural masterpieces from the heart of Africa's equatorial rainforest. The exhibition explores not only the significance of the works presented in their countries of origin but also how their reception in the West led them to enter the mainstream of universal art.
at right: Female Reliquary Figure (Nlo Bieri), 19th-20th century, Gabon or Equatorial Guinea; Fang, Okak group; The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1965 (1978.412.441), Catalog no. 23
- View other objects on exhibit
Organized thematically, Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary explains the sources of cultural and spiritual inspiration that led to their creation in equatorial Africa. Drawn from the most important collections of African art in Europe and the United States, the more than 150 works featured in the exhibition relate to 14 distinct traditions in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were created to celebrate the lives of an extended family's most notable ancestors and to give expression to their ongoing role as advocates with the divine.
Since sacred relics have served as the catalysts for some of the most exalted and revered creations in the history of Western, Eastern, and African civilizations, the exhibition considers reliquaries from other world cultures alongside those produced in Africa, thereby drawing upon related works from other parts of the Metropolitan’s encyclopedic collections.
Many of the works on view won renown as fresh sources of inspiration for early 20th-century Western avant-garde artists, who collected them and kept them in their studios. Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Henri Matisse were among the many artists who not only collected African sculpture but who also carefully studied it in the newly formed ethnographic museums of the day.
"Given that Western artists' engagement with these African works was essentially concerned with their formal qualities – namely the dynamic portrayal of the human form as it was distilled into essential elements – and given this emphasis on their originality, both the origins and spiritual meaning of these great works for their creators were subsequently largely ignored," said Alisa LaGamma, Curator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan and organizer of this exhibition. "Eternal Ancestors seeks to reveal the mystery behind the original spiritual and social imperatives that led to their creation by examining the history of the reception of these African artifacts in the West. I believe that an awareness of what inspired them allows us to appreciate Africa's heritage in a meaningful context."
Film footage in the exhibition will emphasize the importance of
performance rites as devotional forms of expression and demonstrate the
music and dance that are integral parts of those ceremonies. While
acknowledging that these works have ultimately transcended their
original cultural contexts, the exhibition seeks to examine them on
their own terms.
The illustrated catalogue Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary - with essays by specialists in various fields - will accompany the exhibition. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, it will be available at the Museum's book shops for $65. It is also available for consultation in the Goldwater Library.
The exhibition will close March 2, 2008.
The exhibition is made possible in part by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Doris Duke Fund for Publications.
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art Web Site
-- Press Release (June 2007)