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Exhibition Explores Religious and Political Power of African Figure Sculptures
Bowl bearer. Luba, D.R.C. Wood, brass tacks, iron, beads; h. 39 cm. Felix Collection.Photo: © Dick Beaulieux, Brussels.

CLEVELAND, OH.- The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) presents Art and Power in the Central African Savanna, an original exhibition that explores the political and religious power of nearly 60 sculptures created by artists of four Central African cultures: the Luba, Songye, Chokwe, and Luluwa. Premiering at the Menil Collection in Houston last fall, Art and Power is on view at CMA from March 1 – May 31, 2009 and concludes at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (June 27 – October 11, 2009).

Carved primarily from wood, these figures act as containers for magical ingredients and serve purposes both religious and political. According to traditional beliefs, the figures mediate between the human and spirit world to ensure a healthy birth, successful hunt, or triumph over an enemy. The exhibition explores the aesthetic complexity and the mysterious potency of these diverse objects. Although the cultures explored in Art and Power have each been the subject of in-depth monographic studies, this is the first exhibition to focus on the shared concepts and ideas between four visually distinct artistic traditions.

“This exhibition attempts to introduce a sense of history into the discussion of African art, by linking developments in artistic styles with corresponding changes in Luba, Songye, Chokwe and Luluwa society,” said Constantine Petridis, the CMA curator of African art who conceived and organized the exhibition. “In addition, Art and Power demonstrates how certain works traditionally perceived by Western scholars as religious in nature also embody references to the political sphere—and vice-versa.”

Many of the featured objects combine “power” in both a religious and a political sense, countering the usual divisions made by scholars of African art between “sacred” art, framed by beliefs in the supernatural, and “secular” art, connected with the exercise of leadership. Indeed, this exhibition contains power figures that signal rank, wealth and status while simultaneously possessing the power to cure, protect, or harm.

In addition, Art and Power examines the artistic traditions of the heart of Africa within the context of historical change, thus countering the commonly held perception of African art as an art without history. Petridis suggests that among the four cultures a special form of power figure—characterized by large size, refined finish, and detailed rendering of anatomy and decoration — developed at a time of political and social reforms that resulted in a higher degree of centralization, a more complex political and social structure, and the emergence of an elite of high-ranking titleholders.

The exhibition contains masterworks on loan from public and private collections in the United States and Belgium, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the collection of Laura and James J. Ross in New York, the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., the Felix Collection in Brussels, and the Ethnographic Museum in Antwerp. Highlights of the exhibition include:

 An extraordinary bowl bearer of the Luba people, consisting of a dynamic arrangement of humans and animals. Used as oracles by diviners working in the service of kings, bowl bearers’ powers included protection and healing of the village as a whole.

 A large Songye figure of a male whose body is bedecked with paraphernalia, including containers filled with magical substances like horns and miniature carvings. The size and sophistication of this figure indicate that it was the collective property of the village and served community needs.

 A majestic Chokwe male figure owned by the “lord of the land,” the highest political rank in Chokwe society. The sculpture most likely held a tall wood spear in the tubular container on its head, and may have been intended to safeguard the chief’s power and authority.

 A splendid Luluwa figure that represents a special form of female political power, and played a role in fostering a young woman’s fertility and the beauty and health of her children.

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