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Heroic Africans at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The epic exhibition at Metropolitan Museum in New York displays culturally-contemporary art that revives the faces of African heroes from pre-photographic times

Ahram Online, Sunday 9 Oct 2011
Queen mother pendant mask. Nigeria, 16th century. Ivory, iron, copper (?). (Courtesy: Metropolitan m
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Bringing together more than 100 masterpieces drawn from 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 featured are among the only tangible surviving vestiges of generations of leaders that shaped Africa’s pre-colonial history among the Akan of Ghana; the Kingdom of Benin of Nigeria; the 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, idealised 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 centres—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 will consider 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 (DRC) and Chief Kalala Lea of the Hemba (DRC).

Heroic Africans presents an unparalleled opportunity to bring to life oral history in visual terms and describe the face of 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 memorialised eminent individuals of their societies. We have now an astonishingly diverse repertory of regional sculptural idioms - both naturalistic and abstract - that commemorate their heroes through culturally-customised aesthetic formulations.

Although these heroes have been written about in academic studies on Africa, this is the first artistic exhibition to highlight them. The cultural artistic context of the pieces makes it an enjoyable way to relate to the historical heroes of long ago as living, breathing men and women. 

A variety of parallel education programmes gives more depth to the exhibition.

The start of the programmes on Saturday, 1 October featured Grammy Award-winner Angélique Kidjo.

The exhibition will culminate with a conversation on Africa’s heritage on the Sunday, 29 January afternoon, featuring author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, historian Joseph Miller and journalist Helene Cooper. This panel will discuss the importance of oral narratives as a major source of literary inspiration and historical understanding of Africa’s past.

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