This major international loan exhibition challenges conventional perceptions of African art. Bringing together more than one hundred masterpieces drawn from collections in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Portugal, France, and the United States, it considers eight landmark sculptural traditions from West and Central Africa created between the twelfth and early twentieth centuries in terms of the individual subjects who lie at the origins of the representations. Analysis of each of these considers the historical circumstances and cultural values that inform the artistic landmarks presented.
The works featured are among the only tangible links that survive, relating to generations of leaders that shaped Africa's past before colonialism, among the Akan of Ghana, ancient Ife civilization and the Kingdom of Benin of Nigeria, Bangwa and Kom chiefdoms of the Cameroon Grassfields, the Chokwe of Angola and Zambia, and the Luluwa, Hemba, and Kuba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Harnessing materials ranging from humble clay, ubiquitous wood, precious ivory, and costly metal alloys, sculptors from these regions captured evocative, idealized, and enduring likenesses of their individual patrons whose identities were otherwise recorded in ephemeral oral traditions.
The exhibition opens by posing the question: Who are the individuals that the most gifted artists of their respective times and cultures depicted for posterity? Over the centuries across sub-Saharan Africa, artists memorialized for posterity eminent individuals of their societies in an astonishingly diverse repertory of regional sculptural idioms, both naturalistic and abstract, that commemorate their subjects through customized aesthetic formulations. The original patrons of such depictions intended for them to act as concrete points of reference to specific elite members of a given community. For over a century, however, isolation of those creations from the sites, oral traditions, and sociocultural contexts in which they were conceived has led them to be seen as timeless abstractions of generic archetypes. On a purely formal level it is not self-evident that these works were produced in honor of admired individuals. Instead, cultural context is the key to our appreciation of the significance of such representations and ability to connect them to their historical subjects. While information about those figures has been touched upon in the academic literature of African studies, such a body of work has never before been assembled in an exhibition. Heroic Africans presents an unparalleled opportunity to bring to life oral history in visual terms and to put a face on Africa's pre-colonial history for the widest possible audience.
An in-depth look at one of Central Africa's most dazzling sculptural genres unfamiliar to American audiences is a highlight of the exhibition. During the nineteenth century, Hemba masters in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo paid tribute to their leaders through these free-standing wood sculptures, impressive for their scale and elegance. An unprecedented assemblage of twenty-two superb works from this sublime tradition is gathered together for the first time and offers viewers an opportunity to examine the subtle distinctions that may be discerned among masterpieces that rank among the most impressive artistic achievements from sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition to key works central to the Metropolitan's own collection, outstanding loans have been contributed by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth; Seattle Art Museum; Cleveland Museum of Art; Minneapolis Museum of Art; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art; Brooklyn Museum of Art; British Museum; Welkulturen Museum, Frankfurt; Volkerkunde Museum, Berlin; Dapper Museum and Quai Branly, Paris; Museum aan de Stroom [MAS], Antwerp, and the Afrika Museum in Tervuren, Belgium; and Museu Nacional de Arqueologia and Museu Etnográfico-Sociedade de Geografia, Lisbon.