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Exhibitions/ Art and Oracle

Art and Oracle: Spirit Voices of Africa

April 26–July 30, 2000

Exhibition Overview

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.

Several works in the exhibition are monuments that were commissioned by African leaders before colonialism. These were created in response to auguries concerning their individual destines and are unqualified in their expressive power to evoke the personal aspirations of their patrons for contemporary viewers. The celebrated divination portrait of King Glele (Fondation Dapper, Paris) and that of King Gbehanzin (Musée de l'Homme, Paris) capture the identities of two successive generations of Dahomean monarchs from what is now the Republic of Benin.

The gleaming brass portrayal of Glele (r. 1858–89) in the guise of the armed war god Gu projects a sense of invulnerability and martial strength at the height of Dahomey's power. In contrast, the lifesize portrayal of his son Gbehanzin (r. 1889–94)—who inherited a state on the eve of its defeat to French imperialism, and was consumed with keeping that enemy force at bay—is a surrealistic creature that fuses together shark and human features. The work was commissioned before his exile to Martinique.

A diverse group of artifacts designed by Yoruba artists pay tribute to the legacy of a single divination system that originated in present-day Nigeria, known as Ifa. Since the diaspora of Africans extended to the Americas, Ifa has significantly influenced religious practice in the West. Outstanding implements in the exhibition that were designed over the centuries to play a central role in the practice of Ifa include a celebrated, carved divination tray (Ulmer Museum, Ulm, Germany) that was among the earliest artifacts from Africa preserved in the West; elegantly refined ivory divination tappers and containers with elaborate figurative embellishment; and radiantly hued bags, composed of beadwork appliqué, that were carried by Ifa diviners. The central role of Ifa in Yoruba society is expressed through classic Ifa imagery in the complex composition of a monumental wooden door carved in relief by the Yoruba master sculptor, Olowe of Ise (d. 1938), who was among the continent's most remarkable talents.

Other sections of the exhibition present visual comparisons of conceptually related works from different cultures. The social importance and status of diviners as leaders in a range of cultural contexts is suggested through a series of emblematic works that served as the visual insignia of diviners in their respective communities. Included are a portrait-like Kongo diviner's mask that blends humanistic naturalism and otherworldly spirituality (Kimbell Art Museum); the elegant minimalism of a Yoruba cast-iron processional staff surmounted by birds (private collection); and the fantastical creature with crocodilian and bird features depicted by a masquerade ensemble worn by diviners along the border of Cameroon and Nigeria (Museum für Volkerkunde, Dresden). Other crosscultural categories compare conceptually related divination implements such as musical instruments, friction oracles, and diviners' kits.

In order to provide a fuller understanding of the original contexts in which such works once operated, the installation includes film footage of a series of divination rituals.

The exhibition is supported by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

The exhibition was organized in collaboration with the Rietberg Museum, Zurich.

The exhibition catalogue and a special Web feature are made possible by The Ford Foundation.