Monday, October 10, 2011

'Heroic Africans' Exhibit Opens at the Met

Ask the average American to identify a legendary African leader, and they'll likely name anti-apartheid warrior Nelson Mandela or Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen; both deserving, iconic figures.

But the Mother Continent has nurtured centuries of great kings, queens, chiefs and priests whose names and achievements were largely erased from memory when colonialism disrupted oral history traditions and scattered biographical objects.

Curator Alisa LaGamma and the Metropolitan Museum of Art spent the past four years tracking down more than 100 sculptures, masks and photographs created in West and Central Africa between the 12th and early 20th centuries, drawing them from 40 collections across Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Portugal, France and the United States.

And they didn't stop there. The new exhibit, "Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures," not only gathers rare pieces never before seen in the United States (and in some cases, reunites sculptures that have been separated for centuries), but its curator has taken great pains to actually name the men and women depicted in these pre-colonial masterpieces.

"We are taking an unusual approach: We've taken some very, very famous pieces of African art, and some rare pieces, and we've tried to identify the people who are the subjects of those pieces," says LaGamma, curator of the department of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

"These are the celebrities of historic African culture that were highly influential, and were considered to be important and notable figures that deserved to be depicted," she says. "We've included the stories that we know, but many were lost because they were passed down orally, and a lot of that was not recorded when the continent was colonized."

Chief Nosa Isekhure, the isekhure of Benin. (Courtesy Phyllis Galembo and Steven Kasher Gallery)

The exhibit focuses on eight sub-Saharan realms, including the Akan peoples of Ghana, the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria, the Bangwa and Kom chiefdoms of the Cameroon grasslands, and the Chokwe of Angola and Zambia.

It opens with the famous ivory Queen Mother pendant mask immortalizing Queen Idia, warrior and mother of Oba Esigie, one of Benin's most dynamic kings. Esigie's early 16th century claim to the throne was contested by his brother, and he credited his mother's political prowess and magical powers for his ­success.

"She became his most trusted adviser," explains LaGamma. The elaborately detailed and realistic mask is hollowed to be filled with powerful medicines and herbs. "This would have been worn around his neck or waist like a pendant or locket," says LaGamma. "It's an ­amulet protecting him, and also a ­portrait honoring his mother.".

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