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Epic exhibition at Metropolitan Museum reexamines African art in relation to historic figures
Pwo mask, Chokwe peoples; southern Kasai. Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th century. Wood, fiber, pigments, metal, plastic, animal and plant material, 8 ¼ x 7  in. (21 x 18 cm). The Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium (EO.0.0.43143)

NEW YORK, N.Y.- An ambitious exhibition—sweeping in scope and challenging conventional perceptions of African art—opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bringing together more than 100 masterpieces drawn from the premier collections in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Portugal, France, and the United States, Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures considers eight landmark sculptural traditions that flourished in West and Central Africa between the 12th and the early 20th century. These works were created by some of the regions’ most gifted artists, who were charged with producing enduring visual monuments dedicated to the legacies of revered leaders.

The artistic tributes that are featured are among the only tangible surviving vestiges of generations of leaders that shaped Africa’s past before colonialism among the Akan of Ghana, ancient Ife civilization, and the Kingdom of Benin of Nigeria, Bangwa and Kom chiefdoms of the Cameroon Grassfields, the Chokwe of Angola and Zambia, and the Luluwa, Hemba, and Kuba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Harnessing materials ranging from humble clay, ubiquitous wood, precious ivory, and costly metal alloys, sculptors from these regions captured evocative, idealized likenesses of their influential patrons, whose identities were otherwise recorded in ephemeral oral traditions. While for the most part the works presented pre-date the use of photography in Africa, photographic likenesses of successive generations of leaders from these centers—ranging in date from the late 19th century to contemporary portraits by the American photographer Phyllis Galembo—are woven into the presentation.

For the first time a museum considers iconic sculptural tributes from Africa in terms of the specific celebrated figures that they were once intimately tied to. Among those subjects who were famous in their own time but whose significance in connection to their depictions has largely been lost to viewers are: Queen Mother Idia and Oba Akenzua I of Benin (Nigeria), Nana Attabra of Nkwanta (Ghana), Chief Nkwain of Kom (Cameroon),Chief Chibwabwa Ilunga of the Luluwa (Democratic Republic of the Congo), King Mbó Mbóósh of the Kuba (D.R.C), and Chief Kalala Lea of the Hemba (D.R.C.).

Heroic Africans presents an unparalleled opportunity to bring to life oral history in visual terms and put a face on the major protagonists of Africa’s pre-colonial history for the first time. The exhibition opens by posing a question: who are the individuals that the most gifted artists of their respective times and cultures depicted for the ages? Over the centuries across sub-Saharan Africa, artists memorialized for posterity eminent individuals of their societies in an astonishingly diverse repertory of regional sculptural idioms, both naturalistic and abstract, that commemorate their subjects through culturally customized aesthetic formulations. The original patrons of such depictions intended for them to act as concrete points of reference to specific elite members of a given community. Over the past century, however, isolation of those creations from the sites, oral traditions, and socio-cultural contexts in which they were conceived, has led them to be seen as timeless abstractions of generic archetypes. Since that time few have recognized that these works were produced in honor of admired individuals. While information about those figures has been touched upon in the academic literature of African studies, such a body of work has never before been assembled in an exhibition. Through providing key cultural context, this exhibition affords appreciation of the significance of such representations and the ability to relate them to their historical subjects as living, breathing men and women.

An unprecedented in-depth look at one of Central Africa’s most dazzling sculptural genres unfamiliar to American audiences is a highlight of the exhibition. During the 19th century, Hemba masters in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo paid tribute to their leaders through these freestanding wood sculptures that are impressive for their scale and elegance. Works from this sublime artistic tradition have never before been the focus of an exhibition, and a tour de force of Heroic Africans is an unprecedented assemblage of 22 superb commemorative figures. Presented as a majestic council of statesmen, this section offers viewers an opportunity to examine the subtle distinctions that may be discerned among masterpieces that rank among the most impressive artistic achievements from sub-Saharan Africa.

In contrast to the serene meditative and highly introspective aesthetic of the artistic tributes favored by Hemba sculptors, a contemporaneous work from Cameroon immortalizes its female subject as an incomparably dynamic and vibrant presence captured in suspended motion. This celebrated creation of a dancing priestess by a Bangwa master (Musée Dapper, Paris) has been acclaimed as among the most influential artistic achievements from Africa since the early 20th century. Among the other works from Cameroon, assembled from Berlin, Frankfurt, and Seattle for the first time since they left Africa, are a series of monumental thrones from the Kingdom of Kom identified with two successive generations of 19th-century leaders. Finally, this groundbreaking presentation has gathered five of the commemorative figures representing the dynasty of Kuba leadership from the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Western Kasai region for the first time from the collections of the British Museum, Tervuren in Brussels, and the Brooklyn Museum. Beginning with the visionary 17th-century sovereign Shyáám áMbúl áNgoong, this artistic tradition presented Kuba potentates elevated on dais-like platforms; their identities are indicated by visual emblems associated with their reigns.

In addition to key works central to the Metropolitan's own collection, outstanding loans are contributed by private individuals and the following institutions: Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; Seattle Art Museum; Cleveland Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art; Brooklyn Museum; The British Museum; Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt am Main; Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin; Musée Dapper and Musée du Quai Branly, Paris; Museum aan de Stroom [MAS], Antwerp, and Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium; and Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, Museu Nacional de Etnologia, and Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa, Lisbon, and Museu de História Natural-Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade do Porto, Portugal.

African Art | Metropolitan Museum | Epic exhibition |

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