Couples in African Sculpture
February 10–September 5, 2004
Accompanied by a catalogue
Idealized pairings have been an enduring concern of sculptors in many sub-Saharan African cultures. This exhibition examines the theme through approximately sixty works of sculpture in wood, bronze, terracotta, and beadwork, dating from the twelfth to the twentieth century. The sculptures on view were created by artists from thirty different regional traditions, including the Dogon and Bamana of Mali; the Senufo and Baule of Côte d'Ivoire, the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Mangbetu and Zande of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Sakalava and Vezo of Madagascar.
Among the exhibition's highlights is the Primordial Couple, a freestanding wood sculpture of a seated male and female couple created by a Dogon master. Dating to as early as the sixteenth century, this masterpiece is one of the most beloved icons in the Metropolitan's African collection. Given the work's scale and complexity, scholars have suggested that it was created to honor a Dogon elder. The figures are eloquently unified by the male figure's gesture, reaching his right arm around his partner's neck and resting his hand on her breast. This seminal work gives expression to the idea of man and woman as an elemental unit of life, and served as a bridge between the Museum's permanent collection and the works on loan for the exhibition.
The Primordial Couple is complemented by a series of other regional sculptural traditions from the Western Sudan. The earliest of these are the terracotta and brass depictions of couples associated with the ancient urban center of Djenne-Jeno in Mali's Inland Niger Delta region created between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries. These archaeological works appear to have served a protective role and take the form of miniature brass pendants that may have been worn as amulets or terracotta sculptures placed in proximity to the foundations of domestic structures.
A range of works created by Yoruba sculptors is also presented. As sub-Saharan Africa's largest ethnic group, the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria have been responsible for an artistic tradition that is among the continent's most diverse and prolific, and that has had considerable influence in the Americas. A series of distinct sculptural genres that give expression to ideas of duality in Yoruba society is presented. These include the wood figurines known as ibedji, commissioned by families to commemorate twin children; pairs of male and female staffs held by devotees of the messenger god Esu as metaphors for his vitality; and the brass castings known as edan Osugbo that are insignia of a society of male and female elders. While each edan consists of a pair of male and female figures, the chain that joins the summit emphasizes the notion that its members transcend the divisions and oppositions that inform ordinary life to attain an enlightened state.
Couples Imagery in the Exhibition
In numerous African traditions, couples imagery represents an ideal of cultural refinement and elegance that is designed to enhance the prestige of distinguished patrons. Such representations serve as metaphors of abundance or divinely sanctioned power for elites ranging from wealthy and influential individuals to spiritual intermediaries and leaders from many distinct societies. Among the works on view is an exceptionally refined pair of figurative ivory finials commissioned by a Lagoons leader for display as emblems of status at public gatherings. These highly detailed miniature sculptures depict a regal couple seated on thronelike chairs, the female draped with gold bead necklaces and holding a parasol over her consort, who clasps a staff of leadership in his hands. In contrast, the brilliantly chromatic beaded throne of a Bansoa king from the Cameroon Grassfields region, featured in the exhibition, shows a monumental royal couple positioned at the back edge of the circular seat. Both ivory and beadwork were luxury materials, the prerogative of ruling elites in these respective centers. In addition to the Cameroon throne, a series of seats of office commissioned by leaders in a number of different central African societies similarly emphasize couples imagery.
The imagery of ideal pairs articulated in many of the works may represent prayers and invocations for both the generation of new life as well as hopes for the continuity of life in an ancestral realm. This is vividly underscored by couples created by Malagasy sculptors as funerary monuments. Such works were consecrated in rituals that at once incorporated the deceased into the ancestral community and assured the flow of their vitality to the living. Two exceptional landmarks of Malagasy art are represented in the exhibition. One, the ethereal creation of a Vezo master renowned as "the dancing couple," is unique in African art history for the degree to which it portrays the dynamic interaction between a man and a woman. In dramatic contrast is the stately couple created by a Sakalava master to guard the entrance of a royal tomb.
While the female figure balances a vessel of water on her head, referring to her own status as a vessel of life, her form so closely conforms to that of her male counterpart that they are virtually indistinguishable, constituting echoing images of one another.
The idealized human partnerships portrayed in the exhibition draw upon a diversity of gender dynamics. An elegant male and female sculptural pair created for the appreciation of a Mangbetu chief in the Democratic Republic of the Congo shares a distinctive aristocratic fashion of the late nineteenth century of bound heads crowned with elaborate coiffures and elegant body painting. The regalia of Luba leaders from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is replete with depictions of female pairs. Embracing female caryatid couples, such as the ones depicted on a featured royal headrest, underscore the sexual duality of the Luba kings who owned such artifacts. The selected works pay tribute to the infinite insights into the human condition articulated by African artists across the continent and over the centuries.