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Recent Acquisitions of Art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas on View this Summer

May 22 – October 28, 2001
The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, first floor

The geographic expanse and cultural diversity covered by the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas will be highlighted this summer when a selection of works acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art over the past five years goes on view at the Museum, beginning May 22. The exhibition African, Oceanic, and Ancient American Art: Recent Acquisitions will include some 70 works from such widely diverse places as the Republic of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, the country of Ethiopia in northeastern Africa, and the central highlands of Mexico and will demonstrate the breadth of department's collecting interests. Equally varied are the functions to which the works were put, the materials from which they are made, and the eras in which they were produced. They range in date from the end of the second millennium B.C. to 1998.

A growing appreciation of African artistry in a broader range of media and a new understanding of the continent's complex history have led to the acquisition of a series of Christian works from Ethiopia and the Kingdom of Kongo that challenge old assumptions about Africa's cultural isolation before the 19th century. Dating from the 15th to the 19th century, the crucifixes and icons show Africa's long engagement with Christianity and document the convergence of two distinctive worldviews. Terracotta vessels from Côte d'Ivoire demonstrate both the talents of female artists that made them and the well-designed utility of their form. The silk weaving traditions of Madagascar – now enjoying a contemporary revival – are represented by a splendid mantle woven just three years ago using designs and weaving techniques dating to the 19th century and combining African and Southeast Asian influences.

Other acquisitions such as the lovely Mukudj mask from Gabon fill important gaps in the collection. Carved by a Punu sculptor in the 19th century, it is an idealized portrait celebrating the beauty of an individual woman. Another sculpture from Tomman Island in Vanuatu, is a striking ancestor figure of 20th century date that, standing nearly seven feet tall, was made to house the spirit of a high ranking chief. It is painted with bold body designs and mask-like faces depicting powerful spirits. Also new to the collection is a Maya spouted vessel, carved of stone about two thousand years ago in southwestern Mexico or adjacent Guatemala; it carries a hieroglyphic inscription with its own dedication, and complex, low relief images of deities around its bowl.

The Oceanic collection has added diverse works from Melanesia and Island Southeast Asia, such as a monumental ceremonial textile with finely woven images of crocodiles from the Iban people of Borneo. The textiles were created by female master weavers for use in all aspects of ritual life. Rarely seen examples of jewelry and other personal adornments on view include a finely crafted necklace and earrings of hammered gold from Nias Island off the coast of Sumatra. The property of nobility, the ornaments were so closely associated with their owners that some could serve as stand-ins at important events when the owners could not be present.

The exhibition also includes an appealing assortment of Island Southeast Asian hats, ranging from formal items such as a mushroom-shaped woman's ceremonial hat from Borneo made from colorful trade beads, to practical forms such as a finely polished wooden hunter's helmet from the northern Philippines, which could be inverted to serve as a bowl when needed.

The ancient American additions include a variety of ceramic examples. Small masks from the late second millennium B.C. site of Tlatilco in the Valley of Mexico, are similar in size but have differing facial features ranging from the contorted to the blandly open. A pair of male and female Chinesco figures from Nayarit in the west of Mexico are decorously seated, the female holding a large bowl that may refer to the role of nurturer. From the Maya area of Mexico/Guatemala are two bowls with lordly imagery, dating from the 6th and 8th centuries. Further, a Maya ceramic censer is actually a sculpture in the form of a seated figure with a large headdress. It would have been used to contain smoking copal incense for sacred occasions.

Also on view are works added to the department's Photograph Study Collection. One is a rare view of the city of Antasahatsiroa in the mid-1860s taken by Rev. William Ellis, a member of the London Missionary Society, who was one of the very earliest photographers to work in Madagascar. A group of studio portraits, dating to the first half of the 20th century by a yet-to-be-identified African photographer in what is thought to be Côte d'Ivoire, has an appealing unity of style. Another is a colorful group of six Zulu portraits that date between 1961 and 1970, taken by South African photographer Sukdeo Bobson Mohanlall of Bobson Studio in Durban.

Recent Acquisitions is organized by the staff of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas: Julie Jones, Curator in Charge; Alisa LaGamma, Associate Curator; Eric Kjellgren, Assistant Curator; Virginia-Lee Webb, Associate Research Curator; and Christine Giuntini, Associate Conservator; with the further help of Leslie Gat, Assistant Conservator, and Anna Studebaker, Research Associate, of the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation; and Maya Naunton, Conservation Intern.

Exhibition design is by Dennis Kois, Manager for Design, with graphics by Constance Norkin, Graphic Designer, and lighting by Zack Zanolli, Lighting Designer, all of the Museum's Design Department.

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May 16, 2001

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