Press release


April 26 - July 30, 2000
Special Exhibition Galleries, first floor, adjacent to Greek and Roman Galleries

A figure sculpted in central Africa's rainforest to determine guilt or innocence, a maternity image made by an Igbo potter to enable a woman to conceive children, and a set of dice carved to decide the destiny of a Shona chief will be among the works featured in Art and Oracle: Spirit Voices of Africa, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from April 26 through July 30, 2000. Throughout history and around the world, peoples have sought the intervention of divine powers to understand their fate, and this exhibition will demonstrate the dynamic relationship between ritual practice and creative expression through some 200 artifacts from more than 50 African cultures.

Art and Oracle marks the first time that this rich legacy of African forms of expression has been the subject of a large-scale museum exhibition. It will include works in a diverse array of media — from cast metal to terracotta, sculpted wood and ivory, beadwork, and a multi-media masquerade ensemble — dating from the 16th to the 20th century and on loan from the world's premier European and American collections. The exhibition will not travel after its showing in New York.

The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rietberg Museum, Zurich.

Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, stated: "While past exhibitions of African art have focused primarily on individual artistic traditions, the scope of this presentation is unparalleled in its cultural breadth. These forms of artistic expression are related to divination practices as culturally distinctive as those of the Dogon of Mali and the Shona of Zimbabwe. Through its selection of works that share an underlying source of inspiration and commonly held values, Art and Oracle will provide an opportunity to consider many of the classic icons of African art history in a new light."

Exhibition curator Alisa LaGamma, who is Assistant Curator in the Metropolitan's Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, noted: "Given Africa's cultural diversity, one of the basic challenges that confronts African art curators is the need to impart to audiences a nuanced understanding of relatively unfamiliar artistic traditions and their related belief systems. This exhibition will present important works of African art as unique cultural achievements within a series of distinctive worldviews. It will strive to do so through a topic that resonates with all of us and has no historical or cultural boundaries. Art and Oracle will speak to the ability of great art to fundamentally enhance the quality of human experience and influence the course of life-and-death decisions."

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, invariably specialists are trained to master complex bodies of knowledge and to act as mediators with a spiritual ancestral realm. Many of the distinctive art forms to be featured in this exhibition are 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 Art and Oracle will 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 that is informed by images of leadership in Kongo society.

Several works in the exhibition were monuments 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 will 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 will 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 will be 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 will 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 will be suggested through a series of emblematic works that serve as the visual insignia of diviners in their respective communities. Included will be 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 cross-cultural categories will 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 will include film footage of a series of divination rituals.

Art and Oracle will also draw extensively on works from the Metropolitan Museum's permanent collection, including 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.

Lenders to the exhibition include the Musée de l'Homme, Paris; Fondation Dapper, Paris; British Museum, London; Beyeler Foundation, Riehen; Volkerkunde Museums of Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, and Dresden; University Museum, Philadelphia; Art Institute of Chicago; Field Museum, Chicago; and The Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth.

Educational Programs
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum will offer a series of programs, including lectures, gallery talks, films, and special information on the Museum website.

The exhibition will be accompanied by an 80-page catalogue illustrated in color and authored by Alisa LaGamma, with an essay by John Pemberton III, professor emeritus of African religion at Amherst College. It will be available in the Museum's Bookshop.

Art and Oracle is co-organized by Alisa LaGamma and Lorenz Homerber, Deputy Director of the Rietberg Museum. Exhibition design is by Daniel Kershaw.

Travel Itinerary
The exhibition will be on view at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich — from November 15, 1999, through March 6, 2000 — prior to its showing at the Metropolitan Museum.

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November 10, 1999

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