When a dozen weather-worn wood sculptures from southeastern Nigeria debuted in a Paris gallery in 1974, they were radically different from any African art that had been exhibited in the West. After that brief assembly, the carved Mbembe figures mostly retreated from public view to private collections, excepting one on proud view in the Louvre. Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art now reunites those works from the 17th to 19th centuries for the first time since the 1974 Paris exhibition.
The sculptures — originally part of massive drums used to communicate between Mbembe communities — remain as enigmatic as they were in 1972 when gallery owner and art dealer Hélène Kamer acquired them from a Malian dealer named O. Traoré. As Alisa LaGamma, curator of arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Met, relates in her “Silenced Mbembe Muses” article, Traoré brought all the known Mbembe wood sculptures over the course of a couple of years to Kamer. Then, after relaying information from an elder about their history, Kramer never heard from Traoré again. Aside from a few other scattered examples, the works in Warriors and Mothers remain the sole survivors of a tradition likely lost when 19th-century British occupation muted indigenous religious practices.
Although a small cluster in their modest exhibition at the Met, each figure is remarkable, whether they depict a warrior holding forth a trophy head or mother sitting upright, holding her child. The textures of the deteriorated surface often reveal the patterns of tree rings, the corroded edges rippled and scarred like drift wood. One tall form stands without his head, the label text indicating it represents a man named Chief N’Ko, who gave this reason given for his decapitation:
I know that after our death, our great grandsons will know more comfortable centuries than our own; but to remind them that this ease comes from us, who have fought for their freedom, I ask that the head of my sculpture be cut off and buried with the rest of my body. This will remind them that numerous heads were severed for their liberty but if our faces have disappeared our powers will lead them nonetheless.
In the Met’s exhibition, it’s hard to grasp at their cultural context, presented in rows before dark walls with minimal label text. As some of the oldest known wood sculpture from Africa, they can easily be appreciated for their battered beauty alone, but it’s the distant reverberation of a practice now gone that gives them a resonant power.
Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 16.
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