Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination

LaGamma, Alisa, with an essay by John Pemberton III (2000)

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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (8)
Art and Oracle: Spirit Voices of Africa

People throughout history have developed divinatory strategies as a means of harnessing spiritual forces that can be used to resolve their problems. Many of the most renowned and sublime works of art from Africa were conceived as part of such quests for understanding and enlightenment. This exhibition explores the relationship between artistic creation and divine inspiration by bringing together some of the finest works relating to the cosmologies and religious systems that inform divination practices across sub-Saharan Africa. Works of art designed as instruments for professional diviners and prescribed as remedies to the individuals who consult them include the full repertory of finely carved implements, used for over half a millennium, by Yoruba Ifa diviners as well as figurative sculptures from Senufo, Baule, Mende, Igbo, and a score of other cultures. Works conceived to enhance the destinies of their individual owners range from monuments commissioned by kings to miniature protective amulets. The exhibition features some two hundred works of sculpture in a full range of media from European and American collections.

In many African societies, individuals rely on the wisdom and counsel of professional diviners to advise them about decisions that affect their future. While a vast array of approaches to divination—the way in which spiritual entities are consulted—are practiced in Africa, specialists are invariably trained to master complex bodies of knowledge, and to act as mediators with a spiritual ancestral realm. Many of the distinctive art forms featured in this exhibition were implements used by diviners to facilitate inquiries into their clients' problems. Others were originally prescribed by diviners to their clients as a means of enhancing their well being, alleviating certain chronic problems, or providing personal protection. Whatever their role in the divination process, the aesthetic power of the works considered profoundly enhanced lived experience.

Works featured in the exhibition range from representations that relate to the intimate needs of individual patrons to those that reflect the collective concerns of an entire community. These take the form of cast brass, miniature protective items of personal adornment created in Burkina Faso, and a monumental, morally authoritative N'kisi Nkondi power figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Works from the Metropolitan's collection include a pair of figures created for a Baule diviner from Côte d'Ivoire, a janus figure designed to safeguard a Fon household in the Republic of Benin, and a kneeling female devotee depicted as a caryatid whose upraised arms support an ivory Ifa diviner's vessel from the Yoruba center of Owo.