Exhibitions/ Genesis

Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture

November 19, 2002–July 6, 2003
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

How did the world begin? What is our ancestry? What is the source of agriculture and of kingship, and other societal institutions? African cultures seek to provide answers to these questions through elaborate interwoven traditions of oral history, poetry, and art. Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture explores how artists in seventeen distinct African cultures have interpreted these ideas and sought to answer these questions. Within that framework, the exhibition explores in depth the nuanced complexity of one noteworthy classical sculptural form, the ci wara antelope headdress of the Bamana people. The exhibition includes forty exceptional ci wara headdresses, as well as thirty-five noted masterpieces from across sub-Saharan Africa inspired by distinctive myths of origin ranging from the Dogon of Mali, the Senufo of Côte d’Ivoire, and the Yoruba of Nigeria to the Luba and Kuba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Chokwe of Angola, and the Ntwane of South Africa.

Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture seeks to shed light on the act of human creation as a broad and recurrent theme of African art. While the works of African art included relate to a panoply of social perspectives and traditions, they all reflect a desire to give tangible form to the abstract forces that have shaped the course of human experience. The works of art chosen constitute points of reference that allow individuals to conceive of their place within an expansive history. The artists who executed them have responded to their society's most exalted challenge and in doing so provide insight into their distinctive worldview.

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The exhibition considered in depth the nuanced complexity of one noteworthy sculptural form from Mali, the ci wara antelope headdress of the Bamana people. An iconic art form in its own right, the ci wara headdress also was explored for a fuller appreciation of one particular artistic tradition and its relationship to a myth of creation.

Among the Bamana, the invention of agriculture, and human understanding of the earth, animals, and plants is attributed to a mythical culture hero, Ci Wara. This knowledge is shared by members of a men's agricultural association—also known as ci wara—that holds ceremonial dances to celebrate the skills of talented farmers and commemorate Ci Wara's beneficence. The headdresses are the visual highlight of the dance.

Ci wara headdresses are traditionally created in pairs, one male and one female. Each consists of a carved wooden artifact attached to a basketry cap that is affixed to the dancer's head. In performance, the pair evokes the elements essential to sustain life. The male is associated with the sun, his female companion—who supports a miniature fawn on her back—has been described as a metaphor for the earth, and long fibers that are attached to the headdresses and cascade over the body of the dancers are interpreted as rivulets of water. The major source of inspiration for the form is the roan antelope, admired for its grace and strength. In addition, the way the animal bends its neck recalls a farmer bending his back to till the soil. Also incorporated in the design are distinctive features of a range of highly symbolic creatures including two species of anteater, the aardvark and the pangolin, whose attributes include determination and conscientiousness.

The juxtaposed negative and positive space in the sculpture resembles intricate cutouts. This elegant abstraction is valued for its transcendent aesthetic qualities not only in the Bamana society that produced it, but also in the West by artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Marius de Zayas, and Fernand Léger. A monotype from the 1980s by the contemporary African artist Paul Ahyi—also featured in the exhibition—reflects the role such forms still play in inspiring aesthetic expression.

Performances of ci wara have been documented by missionaries and researchers since 1905 and reveal a tradition that has at once endured and adapted to shifting realities in Bamana society. Inextricably tied to the spiritual life of rural agrarian communities during the early twentieth century, ci wara has been influenced significantly by changes in agricultural practices, urbanization, and the influence of Islam. As a result, ci wara performances have evolved into secularized theatrical events and the imagery now relates to achievement in a wide range of pursuits relevant to contemporary life in Mali. Photographs and film footage of ci wara performance—an essential aspect of the art form—were integrated into the exhibition. In the film produced to accompany the installation, highlights of footage of a dozen performances recorded between 1970 and 2002 are featured. Among these is the work of the American photographer and collector Eliot Elisofon (1911–1973) as well as that of numerous researchers. Of particular note is never-before-seen footage recorded by Dr. Pascal James Imperato, who documented performances throughout the Bamana region while on assignment to Mali as a medical specialist from 1966 to 1972. In addition, a pair of headdresses complete with their costume ensemble also was displayed to further emphasize the integral relationship between these elements as they relate to performance of the art form.

Theories about the creation of humanity were considered through works from the Yoruba, Dogon, Senufo, Bobo, and southern African traditions. According to Yoruba belief, Ife was the site where humans were molded in clay by the divine sculptor Obatala. The world of myth merges with history in a delicately sculpted and sensitive terracotta portrait from the twelfth century that was unearthed at Ile-Ife, an ancient city-state in present-day Nigeria (private collection). The Senufo attribute the creation of the world and the origins of life to the god Kolotyolo, whose first human creations were a man and woman who became husband and wife. A pair of nearly life-size abstractly hewn wood male and female figures carved by a Senufo master carver (Côte d'Ivoire) during the last century recall this ideal pairing and essential partnership (private collection).

The forty Bamana headdresses were complemented by a nearly equal number of related works from neighboring sub-Saharan African peoples. Through label text and contextual photographs, specific information was provided about each culture's distinct perspective and local traditions, yielding insight into the relationship between the visual arts in Africa and fundamental cultural ideas about the origins of various social institutions. The collection of works explored theories about the creation of humankind, ideas about the origins of a collective cultural heritage and political system, and genealogies that situate individuals within an extended history of descent.

A grouping of Kuba, Luba, and Chokwe works considered the foundations of important central African pre-colonial kingdoms in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. Historically, artists in Kuba and Luba societies created works for their respective royal patrons that were viewed as elements of larger visual ensembles designed to invoke the origins of their civilizations. The Kuba culture hero, Woot, considered the first human, is recalled through a type of mask form that may be worn by the king in performances at the court. This and two other royal mask types featured in the exhibition are enhanced with lavish appliqués of costly prestige materials—including copper sheeting, cowrie shells, and beads—obtained through regional trade networks. At the time of a Luba king's investiture, royal insignia are bestowed upon him as critical emblems of his authority, as was originally done for the first Luba king, Kalala Ilunga. A typical Luba treasury—which includes such objects as a seat of office, a spear, a staff, an axe, and a ceremonial vessel—were reconstituted in the exhibition through outstanding examples of each category.

Finally, the importance of a family's origins was represented through works by Baga, Bwa, Kurumba, Mossi, Fang, Bwende, Tabwa, Hemba, and Boyo sculptors. The sculpted and graphically articulated masks of the Bwa from Burkina Faso feature the buffalo, butterfly, serpent—emblematic animal forms that relate to family founding myths—and abstract plank designs (private collection). In central Africa, preserving knowledge about a clan's original ancestors takes the form of highly idealized humanistic representations, such as the regal, serenely composed, full-bodied portraits of Hemba ancestor figures from present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (private collection). The leaders who own such works use them to situate themselves within a carefully drawn-up genealogical tree that connects them to larger-than-life progenitors who exist at the boundary between history and myth.