Alisa LaGamma and Philippe de Montebello discuss the original form and function of this arresting sculpture from Central Africa. Recorded on the occasion of The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions, on view from October 24, 2008, through February 1, 2009.
Helen Evans: Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello and curator Alisa LaGamma discuss the Museum's African power figure. Their conversation was recorded in connection with the exhibition The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions.
Philippe de Montebello: We are standing in front of this extraordinarily powerful—in fact, it's called a "power figure"—Alisa LaGamma, the curator of African Art, and myself, and you, our listener. And what is fascinating among many, many things about this piece is how it in many ways redefines the term "beauty" for us.
Your instinct is to recoil, because it is a terrifying object. At the same time, it is so captivating you don't quite know what to do. And the reason why I think you have this reaction to the piece is that between the intent of the artist and the execution, there is no slack.
He wanted to create a figure, a cult figure, a reliquary, to precisely—to awe and to frighten, in a way, into a kind of submission to the gods. And he, the artist, has succeeded magisterially. And Alisa LaGamma will tell us a little bit more and with greater precision about just why this was created; what it is. Alisa?
Alisa LaGamma: Well, one of the fascinating things about our reaction to this work is that in many ways, as Philippe pointed out, our experience of it in the present is very much what a Congo individual would have experienced standing before it in the kind of community that this work was a focal point for.
The author of this work intended it to be a deterrent, a work that would inspire respect for authority and social conduct that adhered to a code of behavior. So that members of the community would feel that there was a vigilant and omniscient force that was looking over the affairs of the community, and that there would be consequences to pay were certain boundaries overstepped.
One of the things that I also think, on an aesthetic level, is very interesting to know about this kind of a work is that the sculptor who was presented with this challenge was giving figurative form, was personifying, an abstract force of jurisprudence. And he brought all his talent and imagination to bear on rendering that subject as a very vital and dynamic presence.
Then some of the other elements that really elicit visceral responses from us—like all of that very intense hardware that projects from the torso—that is all the cumulative use of this work over the decades, where members of the community came before this work and cemented different kinds of agreements and treaties and laws.
Philippe de Montebello: Oh, so when the sculptor had finished the work, it was smooth. It is the congregation, so to speak, over time that banged these nails and these things into it. That, of course, is part of what gives it so much life. One almost wonders if it's looking back at us, staring with these eyes that look into eternity out of—what is it, shell?
Alisa LaGamma: It's actually a ceramic that has been—
Philippe de Montebello: A ceramic, yeah.
Alisa LaGamma: —embedded into the wood, to real—
Philippe de Montebello: Almost begging for us to place our own imprint into it. One hopes that it has been neutralized in our galleries.
Alisa LaGamma: There are over four hundred elements of hardware, of different kinds of nails and blades, that were pounded into this figure, and each one of those represents a particular case that was brought before this figure.
Philippe de Montebello: It's like an ex-voto in a church. Tell me, what is that gaping hole in the stomach?
Alisa LaGamma: Well, the figure is produced by the sculptor as a vessel, a receptacle for this force. And the way that the ritual specialist, who is handed the completed sculpture, fills this vessel with its spiritual contents is that he collects special ingredients that are considered to attract the force into the figure.
One of the major materials that is appropriate in this case is earth taken from ancestral burial sites, mixed in with other things. And then the receptacle that is in the abdominal cavity is sealed.
Now, our figure has been emptied of all of that matter. So, in a sense it's been—
Philippe de Montebello: That's rather reassuring, isn't it?
Alisa LaGamma: It's been desacralized, probably intentionally, when it was taken out of the region.
Philippe de Montebello: Well, quite clearly this is quite a departure from the Grecian, classical ideal figure that our Acquisitions Committee is accustomed to see. Yet they expended a colossal amount of money for this major object of African art, and I think that is testimony to how compelling the artist has been in conveying precisely what you described, the function of the piece.
Thank you, Alisa, for your insight.
Helen Evans: This recorded conversation was produced in conjunction with The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions, on view at the Met through February 1, 2009. The exhibition was organized in tribute to Philippe de Montebello's thirty-one years as director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Come to the Museum to take an audio tour of the galleries with many of the Met's curators.
This has been an Antenna Audio production.