Monday, May 2, 2011

African Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Charles Kessler

I was disappointed I didn’t get to see the Tishman/Disney collection of African art when I went to Washington last week, so after looking at the Richard Serra and Anthony Caro shows at the Met a few days ago, I decided to spend time studying the Met's African art.  It's quite simply some of the best art in the city -- some of the best art anywhere.

Traditional African artists were respected professionals who underwent rigorous training in the styles and conventions of their culture, but artists were expected to make interesting variations on traditional themes. Standards were very high, and their degree of skill was acknowledged and the subject of considerable discussion.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if one of the reasons African artists were so respected, and their art is so powerful, is because it evolved when there was no written language. It was left to artists, as a result, to physically manifest a culture's wisdom, history, law, morality, etc. The incentive, the necessity, to produce richly meaningful art must have been enormous. 

African art, of course, has a staggeringly expressive range, as you'd expect of the art of a country that's more than three times the size of the continental United States. But I want to focus here on art that is elegant and graceful -- at least what is thought of as elegant and graceful in western terms.  It is an art based on nature without copying nature. This is a subtle and sophisticated art that's abstracted down to the essentials.  Here are some of my favorites. (I included the acquisition number in the captions so you can easily look them up on the Met's Collection Database.)

The first two works are relatively old and are breathtaking examples from the Edo Empire (1440-1897), the pre-colonial African state of Benin, located in what is now Nigeria.  (Coincidentally, the Edo period in Japan was about the same time, 1603 - 1868, but there is no connection.)
Head of Oba, 16th C, Edo peoples, Nigeria, Court of Benin, brass (Met #1979.206)
Detail: Head of Oba. Click to enlarge.
Both these sculptures (the brass Head of Oba and the ivory Queen Mother Pendant Mask) epitomize Itutu (or Tut), the Yoruba word for "cool" or "serene" or "composed." Itutu is one of the most important aesthetic ideals that Robert Thompson learned about in interviews with traditional African dancers and artists and documented in his classic African Art in Motion. (I treasure this book and it's missing -- if I loaned it to someone out there, please return it.) They also exemplify another aesthetic ideal Thompson's informants held: a balance between realistic portraiture and abstraction.
Queen Mother Pendant Mask - lyoba, 16th C, Edo peoples, ivory, iron, copper, 9x5x3 in (Met #1978.412.323)
Ewe peoples are from Ghana and Togo, the western part of Benin where this striking terracotta sculpture is from. (Note the subtle asymmetry --  one horn is slightly bigger than the other.)
Buffalo Head, 19-20th C, Ewe peoples, Togo, terracotta, 9x9x5 (Met #1979.206.1)
The Bamana peoples live in west Africa, and are mostly known for their flamboyantly swooping antelope masks (see the  photo below this), but I wanted to include this unusual abstract animal (a water buffalo?) because it, and the buffalo head above, beautifully illustrate the case for the sophistication and subtlety of abstract African art. This is not mere design -- there's something about these works that feels alive and vital, which is another aesthetic ideal Thompson wrote about.
Figure - Boine (Boli), 19th-20th C, Bamana peoples, Mali, wood, sacrificial materials (patina), 14x8x21 (Met #1979.206.175)
Headdress (Sogoni Koun), 19th–20th century, Bamana peoples, Mali, Wood, cane, string, bamboo, 23x8x10 in, (Met #1979.206.158)
The Met's website has only this poor black and white picture of a door made by the Baule peoples (below), but I was able to get a good detailed shot that gives a better idea of the graceful drawing and beautiful golden color of this masterpiece. Doors are interesting because they're bas-reliefs rather than sculptures and deal more with drawing and pattern than rounded form.

Door (Anuan), 19th-mid 20th C, Baule peoples, Cote d'Ivoire, wood, pigment, 62x23x3 in (Met #1979.206.120)
Detail: Door (Anuan). Click to enlarge.
The exhibition label for this figure, and a gallery talk I overheard, made note of its "slight bilateral asymmetry."  Thompson's informants felt perfect symmetry is deadening and that slight asymmetry leads to vitality. Of course this applies to a lot of art -- to Cezanne for example.

Figure, 19th -20th C, Mumuye peoples, Nigeria, wood 36x7x6 in (Met #1983.189)
Headress - Serpent (A-Mantsho-na-Tshol), 19th-20th C, Baga peoples, Guinea, wood, pigment, 55 in (Met #1978.412.339
For some reason installations of African art are lit in a dark and spooky theatrical manner, as if it's night in the jungle and the natives are dancing around a fire. Documentary films and photographs of ceremonies where this art is used show how naive this notion is. The ceremonies clearly take place in broad daylight, usually on a dusty field. To its credit, the Met treats this work with more respect.
Installation view, Masquerades Masks, 19th-20th C,  Baga and Nalu peoples, Guinea
Finally, there's this very old sculpture (13th Century) that's simple and sensual but, because it's so raw and gut-wrenching, it doesn't quite fit in with the other work. It's such a powerful piece I want to include it anyway.
Seated figure, 13th C, Djenne peoples, Mali, terracotta, 10x12 in (Met #1981.218)

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.


Carl Belz said...

This stuff blows me away. That Bamana animal figure especially. Wow!

Kyle Gallup said...

Thanks for this post, Charles. I'm planning a visit to the Met again soon. The African Art exhibits will be top on my list.