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Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

LaGamma, Alisa
312 pages
232 illustrations
Winner of the English edition of the International Tribal Art Book Prize (2012)
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Over the centuries, artists across sub-Saharan Africa have memorialized eminent figures in their societies using an astonishingly diverse repertoire of naturalistic and abstract sculptural idioms. Adopting complex aesthetic formulations, they idealized their subjects but also added specific details—such as emblems of rank, scarification patterns, and elaborate coiffures—in order to evoke the individuals represented. Imbued with the essence of their formidable subjects, these works played an essential role in reifying ties with important ancestors at critical moments of transition. Often their transfer from one generation to the next was a prerequisite for conferring legitimacy upon the leaders who followed. The arrival of Europeans as traders, then as colonizers, led to the dislocation of many of these sculptures from their original sites, as well as from the contexts in which they were conceived; thus, today they are seen primarily as timeless abstractions of generic archetypes. Heroic Africans reexamines the sculptures in terms of the individuals who inspired them and the cultural values that informed them, providing insight into the hidden meanings behind these great artistic achievements.

Author Alisa LaGamma considers the landmark sculptural traditions of the kingdoms of Ife and Benin, both in Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire's Akan chiefdoms; the Bangwa and Kom chiefdoms of the Cameroon Grassfields; the Chokwe chiefdoms of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.); and the D.R.C.'s Luluwa, Kuba, and Hemba chiefdoms. More than 140 masterpieces created between the 12th and the early 20th century—complemented by maps, drawings, and excavation and ceremonial photographs—reveal the religious and artistic conventions that defined these distinct regional genres.

Met Art in Publication

Marble head from a statue of Harmodios, Kritios and Nesiotes, Marble, Roman
1st–2nd century CE
Terracotta statuette of the Diadoumenos (youth tying a fillet around his head), Terracotta, Greek
1st century BCE
Top of a marble funerary relief with portrait busts of a young man and an elderly woman, Marble, Roman
ca. 138–141 CE
Marble bust of a man, Marble, Roman
mid-1st century CE
Marble head of an elderly woman, Marble, Roman
ca. 40–20 BCE
Nikare with his Wife and Daughter, Limestone, paint
ca. 2420–2389 B.C. or later
Altar to the Hand of Ezomo Ehenua (Ikegobo), Brass, Edo peoples
Edo peoples
18th–19th century
House of the Head Shrine (Ile Ori), Shell, cotton, leather, Yoruba peoples
Yoruba peoples
19th–20th century
Memorial Head (Ntiri), Terracotta, patina(?), Akan peoples
Akan peoples
17th century (?)
Memorial Head (Ntiri), Terracotta, patina(?), Akan peoples
Akan peoples
17th century (?)
Memorial Head (Nsodie), Terracotta, quartz fragments, Akan peoples
Akan peoples
17th–mid-18th century
Memorial Figure of a Hornblower (Mma), Terracotta, patina(?), Akan peoples, Anyi group
Akan peoples, Anyi group
18th–early 20th century
Royal Seat (Lupona): Female Caryatid, Buli Master, possibly Ngongo ya Chintu (Hemba, ca. 1810-1870)  Democratic Republic of Congo, Wood, metal studs, Luba or Hemba peoples
19th century

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View Citations

LaGamma, Alisa. 2011. Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures. New York : New Haven [Conn.]: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; distributed by Yale University Press.