The Art of the Central African Reliquary
October 2, 2007–March 2, 2008
This exhibition of acclaimed sculptural masterpieces from the heart of Africa's equatorial rain forest explores not only the significance of the works presented in their countries of origin but also how their reception in the West led them to enter the mainstream of universal art. Drawn from the most important collections of African art in Europe and the United States, the more than 150 works featured in the exhibition relate to fourteen distinct traditions in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Many of the works on view gained international fame as fresh sources of inspiration for early twentieth-century Western avant-garde artists, who collected them and kept them in their studios. The excitement generated by those works when they first came to the attention of artists in Paris, Berlin, and New York is reflected in such colloquial names as "The Black Venus" and "Great Bieri," titles by which they have been known ever since. Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Henri Matisse were among the many artists who collected and studied African sculpture.
In the traditions of central Africa, as in many other parts of the world, ties to notable ancestors have been maintained through preservation of sacred relics. The exhibition opens with a series of comparisons between celebrated sculptures, such as nineteenth-century Fang reliquaries created in Gabon with works from the Metropolitan's superb medieval and Asian art collections. These comparisons afford a unique opportunity to appreciate conceptual parallels between some of the most exalted expressions of devotional art in the history of Western, Eastern, and African civilizations.