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Press release

Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture

November 19, 2002-July 7, 2003
Michael C. Rockefeller Wing

More than 75 exceptional examples of sculpture from some of the finest public and private collections of African art in the United States will be shown at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture, opening to the public on November 19. The works relate to traditions that interweave elements of myth, history, religion, and contemporary experience to address universal questions: How did the world begin? What is our ancestry? What is the source of agriculture, kingship, and other societal institutions? The exhibition represents the first time that 17 distinct sculptural traditions that take their inspiration from myths of origin will be considered together. Examined in particular depth will be that of the Bamana (Bambara) people of Mali. Forty stunning ci wara (Chi Wara) antelope headdresses – a classical sculptural form from the Bamana – will constitute the largest assemblage of such works and will allow viewers an appreciation of this tradition in its fullest expression. These works will be introduced by 35 rarely seen masterpieces from 16 distinct cultural traditions from sub-Saharan Africa.

Among the cultures represented will be the Dogon of Mali, the Senufo of Côte d'Ivoire, the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Luba and Kuba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Chokwe of Angola, and the Ntwane of South Africa. Shown together for the first time, the works will explore the question of human origins from diverse artistic perspectives. Lenders to the exhibition include The Art Institute of Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum of Art; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.); the Neuberger Museum (Purchase, New York); the Seattle Art Museum; and private American collections.

"The act of human creation is a broad and recurrent theme of African art," commented Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum. "While the works in Genesis relate to a panoply of African social perspectives and traditions, they all attempt to give tangible form to the abstract forces that have shaped the course of human experience. The artists who executed them have responded to their society's most exalted challenge, and in doing so provide insight into their distinctive world view."

Alisa LaGamma, curator of the exhibition, continued: "The African continent is considered the cradle of humanity and of human creativity. While we have long traced our common ancestry to Africa, recent archaeological discoveries now suggest that our earliest artistic traditions also developed there. For this reason, it seems particularly appropriate to explore questions of human origins through the artistry of the cultures who live where the human race originated so long ago."

A Bamana Tradition: The Origin of Agriculture The exhibition will consider in depth the nuanced complexity of one noteworthy sculptural form from Mali, the ci wara antelope headdress of the Bamana people. An iconic art form in its own right, the ci wara headdress will also be explored for a fuller appreciation of one particular artistic tradition and its relationship to a myth of creation.

Among the Bamana, the invention of agriculture, and human understanding of the earth, animals, and plants is attributed to a mythical culture hero, Ci Wara. This knowledge is shared by members of a men's agricultural association – also known as ci wara – that holds ceremonial dances to celebrate the skills of talented farmers and commemorate Ci Wara's beneficence. The headdresses are the visual highlight of the dance.

Ci wara headdresses are traditionally created in pairs, one male and one female. Each consists of a carved wooden artifact attached to a basketry cap that is affixed to the dancer's head. In performance, the pair evokes the elements essential to sustain life. The male is associated with the sun, his female companion – who supports a miniature fawn on her back – has been described as a metaphor for the earth, and long fibers that are attached to the headdresses and cascade over the body of the dancers are interpreted as rivulets of water. The major source of inspiration for the form is the roan antelope, admired for its grace and strength. In addition, the way the animal bends its neck recalls a farmer bending his back to till the soil. Also incorporated in the design are distinctive features of a range of highly symbolic creatures including two species of anteater, the aardvark and the pangolin, whose attributes include determination and conscientiousness.

The juxtaposed negative and positive space in the sculpture resembles intricate cutouts. This elegant abstraction is valued for its transcendent aesthetic qualities not only in the Bamana society that produced it, but also in the West by artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Marius de Zayas, and Fernand Léger. A monotype from the 1980s by the contemporary African artist Paul Ahyi – also on view in the exhibition – reflects the role such forms still play in inspiring aesthetic expression.

Performances of ci wara have been documented by missionaries and researchers since 1905 and reveal a tradition that has at once endured and adapted to shifting realities in Bamana society. Inextricably tied to the spiritual life of rural agrarian communities during the early 20th century, ci wara has been influenced significantly by changes in agricultural practices, urbanization, and the influence of Islam. As a result, ci wara performances have evolved into secularized theatrical events and the imagery now relates to achievement in a wide range of pursuits relevant to contemporary life in Mali. Photographs and film footage of ci wara performance – an essential aspect of the art form – will be integrated into the exhibition. In the film produced to accompany the installation, highlights of footage of a dozen performances recorded between 1970 and 2002 are featured. Of particular note is the work of the American photographer and collector Eliot Elisofon (1911-1973), who traveled to Mali in the 1970s to capture the performances on film. In addition, a pair of headdresses complete with their costume ensemble will also be displayed to further emphasize the integral relationship between these elements as they relate to performance of the art form.

Myths of Origin in 16 Other Cultures
The 40 Bamana headdresses will be complemented by a nearly equal number of related works from neighboring sub-Saharan African peoples. Through label text and contextual photographs, specific information will be provided about each culture's distinct perspective and local traditions, yielding insight into the relationship between the visual arts in Africa and fundamental cultural ideas about the origins of various social institutions. The works will explore theories about the creation of humankind, ideas about the origins of a collective cultural heritage and political system, and genealogies that situate individuals within an extended history of descent.

Theories about the creation of humanity will be considered through works from the Yoruba, Dogon, Senufo, Bobo, and southern African traditions. According to Yoruba belief, Ife was the site where humans were molded in clay by the divine sculptor Obatala. The world of myth merges with history in a delicately sculpted and sensitive terracotta portrait from the 12th century that was unearthed at Ile-Ife, an ancient city-state in present-day Nigeria (private collection). The Senufo attribute the creation of the world and the origins of life to the god Kolotyolo, whose first human creations were a man and woman who became husband and wife. A pair of nearly life-size abstractly hewn wood male and female figures carved by a Senufo master carver (Côte d'Ivoire) during the last century recall this ideal pairing and essential partnership (private collection).

A grouping of Kuba, Luba, and Chokwe works considers the foundations of important central African pre-colonial kingdoms in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. Historically, artists in Kuba and Luba societies created works for their respective royal patrons that were viewed as elements of larger visual ensembles designed to invoke the origins of their civilizations. The Kuba culture hero, Woot, considered the first human, is recalled through a type of mask form that may be worn by the king in performances at the court. This and two other royal mask types in the exhibition are enhanced with lavish appliqués of costly prestige materials – including copper sheeting, cowrie shells, and beads – obtained through regional trade networks. At the time of a Luba king's investiture, royal insignia are bestowed upon him as critical emblems of his authority, as was originally done for the first Luba king, Kalala Ilunga. A typical Luba treasury – which includes such objects as a seat of office, a spear, a staff, an axe, and a ceremonial vessel – will be reconstituted in the exhibition through outstanding examples of each category.

Finally, the importance of a family's origins will be represented through works by Baga, Bwa, Kurumba, Mossi, Fang, Bwende, Tabwa, Hemba, and Boyo sculptors. The sculpted and graphically articulated masks of the Bwa from Burkina Faso feature the buffalo, butterfly, serpent – emblematic animal forms that relate to family founding myths – and abstract plank designs (private collection). In central Africa, preserving knowledge about a clan's original ancestors takes the form of highly idealized humanistic representations, such as the regal, serenely composed, full-bodied portraits of Hemba ancestor figures from present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (private collection). The leaders who own such works use them to situate themselves within a carefully drawn-up genealogical tree that connects them to larger-than-life progenitors who exist at the boundary between history and myth.

A catalogue published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press will accompany the exhibition. The publication will be available in the Museum's Book Shops.

A variety of educational offerings has been planned in conjunction with the exhibition. These include a symposium on March 7, 2003, gallery talks for general visitors, a teacher workshop, and a series of three lectures by African art specialists: Alisa LaGamma on November 24 at 3:00 p.m.; John Pemberton, a scholar of African religion, on January 31 at 6:00 p.m.; and Mary Jo Arnoldi, curator at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, on February 21 at 6:00 p.m.

The Web site for the Metropolitan ( will feature the exhibition.

The exhibition is organized by Alisa LaGamma, Associate Curator, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Exhibition design is by Daniel Kershaw, Exhibition Designer; graphics are by Barbara Weiss, Graphic Designer; and lighting is by Zack Zanolli, Lighting Designer, all of the Museum's Design Department. Video installation is produced by Christopher Noey, Associate Museum Educator, and edited by Jessica Glass, Audio-Visual Specialist.


Press resources