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Art That Lives? Exploring Figural Art from Africa

Hood Quarterly, autumn/winter 2009-10
Alexander Bortolot, Curator of the Exhibition

Art That Lives? draws upon masterworks of African art from the permanent collection to examine the rich variety of human responses to figural images. Complemented by two European works of art, they speak to the ways people in Africa and beyond have regarded artworks as active forces in their own lives and the wider world. Not only have they perceived certain inanimate objects as living things with their own emotions, personalities, and spiritual force, they have also believed that they themselves could engage and change the world around them by depicting it through art. Pieces carved from wood, sculpted in clay, and cast in metal, some as many as five hundred years old, speak to the ways in which artworks throughout time have mediated disputes among individuals, given presence to the dead, exerted political authority over vast territories, and shaped the relationships between humans and spirits.

The artists who created these sculptures, such as the dramatic Kongo nkisi nkondi from Central Africa, did so to give material form to the invisible forces that impacted their lives and, through the aesthetic choices they made, to influence, augment, and direct them.The nkisi nkondi, jointly created by a sculptor and a ritual expert called an nganga, was a highly complex instrument that utilized energy culled from the spiritual realm to maintain balance in society. Nkondi means “hunter” in the Kikongo language. Powered by an ancestral spirit isolated by the nganga and placed within its abdomen, the figure’s large eyes, pricked ears, and upraised arm—which once held a knife or spear—were designed to assist it in pursuing wrongdoers and bringing them to justice. Nails were driven into its surface and accompanied by insults and oaths to awaken and anger the nkisi and goad it into action.

A series of figural reliquaries—sculptural forms made to house bodily remains of important individuals—reconstituted the bodies of the dead so that they could interact with the living. A diminutive Italian reliquary of Saint Sebastian gazed upon its seventeenthcentury audience and protected them from the plague. Likewise, a nineteenthcentury Kota-Ovambo figure from present-day Gabon, originally placed on top of a basket containing the skulls of revered family ancestors, served as the communicative face of the dead, its highly polished copper- and brass-clad face flashing with light, life, and intelligence.

Art That Lives? also features several artworks that helped individuals shape their relationships with both spirits and with other people. Courtly artworks such as an early eighteenth-century brass hip ornament from the Benin kingdom in present-day Nigeria designated the military general who possessed it as an extension of royal authority, while a Baule sculpture of a young mother of twins was created to help a man in Cote d’Ivoire moderate the erratic and unwelcome behavior of a nature spirit that had imposed itself upon his life.The figure’s poise and quiet beauty both attracted the spirit’s attention and presented a model upon which the spirit could base its own behavior.

African perspectives on art and creativity are as numerous as they are complex. Art That Lives? seeks to enrich viewers’ understanding of the roles images play in human experience, and the ways in which artworks are seen as active participants in people’s lives.

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