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Exhibitions/ Eternal Ancestors

Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary

October 2, 2007–March 2, 2008

Exhibition Overview

This exhibition of acclaimed sculptural masterpieces from the heart of Africa's equatorial rain forest explores not only the significance of the works presented in their countries of origin but also how their reception in the West led them to enter the mainstream of universal art. Drawn from the most important collections of African art in Europe and the United States, the more than 150 works featured in the exhibition relate to fourteen distinct traditions in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Many of the works on view gained international fame as fresh sources of inspiration for early twentieth-century Western avant-garde artists, who collected them and kept them in their studios. The excitement generated by those works when they first came to the attention of artists in Paris, Berlin, and New York is reflected in such colloquial names as "The Black Venus" and "Great Bieri," titles by which they have been known ever since. Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Henri Matisse were among the many artists who collected and studied African sculpture.

In the traditions of central Africa, as in many other parts of the world, ties to notable ancestors have been maintained through preservation of sacred relics. The exhibition opens with a series of comparisons between celebrated sculptures, such as nineteenth-century Fang reliquaries created in Gabon with works from the Metropolitan's superb medieval and Asian art collections. These comparisons afford a unique opportunity to appreciate conceptual parallels between some of the most exalted expressions of devotional art in the history of Western, Eastern, and African civilizations.

The exhibition is made possible in part by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Doris Duke Fund for Publications.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are the wood heads, half-figures, and full figures carved by Fang masters. Created to be positioned at the summit of bark receptacles, the works are striking for their synthesis of intensely introspective contemplation and physical dynamism. Two of the most renowned Fang creations are reunited here for the first time since they were in the collection of the sculptor Jacob Epstein during the first half of the twentieth century: the Female Figure once owned by Derain and now by the Metropolitan; and Seated Female ("Black Venus"), a stunning figure unrivaled in its synthesis of elegance, grace, and physical power, on loan from Musée Dapper in Paris. These two exceptional masterpieces were part of the early wave of African artifacts to arrive in Europe that came to be identified as muses to a new direction in the history of art.

Also featured are two-dimensional wood figurative elements sheathed in precious metals created by the Kota and Mahongwe peoples in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Among the seminal examples on view is a Sculptural Element from a Reliquary Ensemble (Musée du Quai Branly) created by a Kota artist. Made of wood, brass, and copper, this historically important piece was collected over the course of an exploratory journey to the region by the French 1883 expedition led by Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. It entered the French national collections and was included in the earliest exhibition of artifacts from the region at the Orangerie du Jardin des Plantes in 1886, sponsored by France to promote interest in its colonial expansion.

Yet another distinctive genre consists of Bwende and Bembe soft sculptures from the Republic of Congo, with their emphasis on a vibrant red palette, strategic use of contrasting textile patterns, and grand cosmic gestures that announce their role as active intermediaries with the divine. Among the most spectacular and rare examples is a lifesize Female Figure by the Bwende master Makosa of Kingoyi that was collected by the Swedish missionary Efraim Andersson in 1938 (Museum of World Culture).