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Crest (tsesah)
18th century
Purchase, Acquisitions and Rogers Funds, and Anonymous, James J. Ross, and Marian Malcolm Gifts, 2017
2017.35
Episode 11 / 2017

Striking for its imposing grandeur and ethereal sensibility, this work was likely the prototype for one of the most spectacular sculptural genres developed in the Cameroon Grassfields..."

Striking for its imposing grandeur and ethereal sensibility, this work was likely the prototype for one of the most spectacular sculptural genres developed in the Cameroon Grassfields. The highly expressionistic aggrandizement of the head flattens the soaring brow and compresses the bombastic facial features concentrated at the base. At one extreme of the composition, the forehead is two-dimensional, while at the other, the nose, cheeks, and mouth are boldly volumetric.

The Grassfields context that gave rise to this extraordinary creation is West Africa's equivalent to Renaissance Tuscany. The patronage of its affluent and competitive principalities fueled an explosion of unprecedented artistic innovation. This sculptural form became identified with royalty at the Bandjoun court, where it was the focal point of rites relating to a king's elevation at his installation and funeral. It was worn as a crest by a performer who towered over those assembled to witness the pomp and ceremony of the pageantry that accompanied dynastic succession.

This work is believed to date to the eighteenth century and to be the earliest of the surviving corpus of some fifteen monumental "Batcham" crests. The planar forehead of those of more recent vintage is densely covered with incised graphic designs. That original detail has been erased by the elements from the surface of this venerated example. Given the wear it has withstood over scores of generations, its walls are thin. Repeated native repairs attest to the effort directed toward extending its life.

The sculptor responsible for its daring conception was a trailblazer both within his tradition and beyond. Internationally, this sculptural form has been a source of fascination to artists from the German Expressionists to feminists such as Judy Chicago. Accordingly, Batcham works figured centrally at the Museum of Modern Art's landmark exhibitions African Negro Art (1935) and Primitivism in 20th Century Art (1989).

Alisa LaGamma
Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
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