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The Cleveland Museum of Art Organizes Exhibition 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.- 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 60 sculptures created by artists in four Central African cultures: the Luba, Songye, Chokwe, and Luluwa. Carved primarily from wood, these power figures act as containers for magical organic 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. Premiering at the Menil Collection in Houston from September 26, 2008 to January 4, 2009, Art and Power will then travel to the CMA (March 1 – June 7, 2009) and the de Young Museum in San Francisco (June 27 – October 11, 2009).

“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,” said Constantine Petridis, the CMA curator of African art who conceived and organized the exhibition. “This exhibition attempts to introduce a sense of history and time into the discussion of African art, by linking developments in artistic styles with corresponding changes in Luba, Songye, Chokwe and Luluwa political structures.”

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. Although the four artistic traditions 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 cultures.

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 American Museum of Natural History in New York, 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 female figure holding two receptacles of different sizes, part 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 metal 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.

“By offering a new perspective on works of astonishing variety, this exhibition represents the Cleveland Museum of Art’s commitment to scholarship,” said Timothy Rub, CMA director. “Art and Power provides museum visitors across the country the opportunity to view complex examples of African art at a time when our own collection of African art is not on public view.”

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