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“Heroic Africans” on exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. (Photo by author)

Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculpture opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Artin New York City this September with a display of 100 masterpieces borrowed from collections outside of Africa, specifically from Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States.

At face value I thought the exhibition title sounded like an attempt ingratiate African art objects in to a positive and inspirational realm. This, along with the earthy brown color of the exhibition signage, felt clichéd. However I vowed to maintain an open mind as dealing with Africa as a continent loaded with colonial history, really creates a “damned if you do damned if you don’t” scenario for many curators.

It soon became clear that exhibition curator Alisa LaGamma is exploring the idealized representation of Africa’s leaders through its sculptures and relics. Not only this, Heroic Africa focuses specifically on illustrating Kings and Africa’s royalty within eight select regions of the continent. This was a very smart move.

By doing this LaGamma is not treating Africa as a large indiscernible mass, she has created a theme where the sculptures themselves become independent resources to describe a region and its own representation of its leader — many of which are idealized likenesses that serve as narratives to its history. Each region is color-coded in sections, and artwork scale increases as the exhibition unfolds from room to room to masterfully lead the visitor through the space.

Why sculpture specifically if many African traditions are oral history based? Oral history, the wall text explains, has largely ceased through time and little of which has been documented. The sculptures on exhibition are an attempt to create visuals to an oral history. This feels a little far reaching however the introduction of photographs in the exhibition aids its “narrative.” Enter photography and the colonial gaze.

Commemorative figure of a priestess Bamileke peoples; Bangwa chiefdom, Grassfields region Cameroon 19th century Wood, pigments H. 33 1⁄2 in. Musée Dapper, Paris, (Photo courtesy MET, NY)

It is widely accepted that Africa has been documented by its visitors, posing the problem that depictions of African people are exoticized and therefore misleading. The curator displays a selection of these images however and pits the tradition of sculpture as more historically vested against the newer genre of photography. Again this is a smart move as she is able to emphasize the narrative importance of the objects and at the same time acknowledge the problematic of colonial photograph but still use its content to supplement the larger dialogue — which if it were to rely on the objects alone would be thin.

A single video in the exhibition made in Cameroon in 2009 documents the celebration of the 15th Anniversary of King Angwafo III’s accession (currently King of the Mankon region in Cameroon). It appears that this video, like the photographs, serves only to supplement the narrative of the sculptures and to illustrate that the celebration of leaders still exists. Keeping in mind that the exhibition spans the 12th to the early 20th Century, this is the closest LaGamma comes to contextualizing these objects within contemporary Africa.

Herein lies the problematic of such an exhibition. Africa remains in isolation within a greater global dialogue — addressed in exhibitions as the peculiar and unknown stepchild. Unless you are an authority and can fully understand the nuances of each object in history, one sculpture begins to look like another. As viewers (I speak for myself here) we are ill-equipped to deal with these objects other than by decoding their aesthetics using conventional art applications. The result is that without juxtaposition or comparison to any other art practice and little connectivity to current social and cultural Africa, these objects remain isolated as the “other.” I’m curious, for example, how the legends of these leaders are perceived by people living in these regions today, and if the traditions associated with leadership are still in practice, and if so what importance do they have in daily life other than ceremony. I ask exhibition attendee Whitney Erby why she came to see the show:

“As an African American I feel an affinity to Africa” she explains, “not only this my boyfriend is Ghanaian so I came to see if I could see his face, his physical features, in any of the sculptures from Ghana.”

Paul Gebauer, “Portrait of Fon Lo’o” (1954-1966) (Photo courtesy the MET, NY)

Viewing these works in isolation means we decode the meaning of each sculpture by describing and decoding its physical format and features.One label reads:

“Depictions of the obas who led the Kingdom of Benin from the early fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth century share an emphasis on the full, rounded volume of the face, defined with precision and delicately framed with beaded regalia that includes a rolled collar worn low on the neck and a latticework crown that covers the forehead.”

Where this is relevant to decode the way in which Kings were depicted, the methodology of decoding Africa by its appearance feels too deep-seated in its colonial past. More importantly how is this contributing to our understanding of Africa and its culture. In other words African culture, society and politics is still being seen and therefore defined globally through the eyes of the onlooker.

Many curators are deterred to deal with “Africa” as it promises to be a complex space to negotiate within an exhibition. Kudos to LaGamma in her attempt to “challenge perceptions of Africa.” Her ingenious approach to theme as well as an engaging presentation were certainly very well considered and inviting. However I still yearn to find an approach that does not exclude and isolate the African experience in a position of being “looked upon.”

Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculpture is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 29, 2012 in the Special Exhibition Galleries on the first floor.

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Claire Breukel

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...

One reply on “Looking Upon African Leaders Through Objects”

  1. Despite being a little light on context, I did think this exhibit was laid out beautifully. One of the most aesthetically pleasing I’ve seen at the Met, objects, exhibition design, and all. I wonder how an institution like the Met that is all about the objects would work in some oral history? I can’t think of any exhibits there that have really tried. (But I am not a Met historian.) And I wonder, have the stories of the individuals represented in the exhibit even survived, or have they been lost over the (hundreds of) years? 

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