Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Antelopes and Queens: Bambara Sculpture from the Western Sudan: A Groundbreaking Exhibition at the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1960

The exhibition Antelopes and Queens: Bambara Sculpture from the Western Sudan opened to the public at the now-defunct Museum of Primitive Art (MPA) in New York on February 17, 1960. The late Robert Goldwater, a modernist art historian and the MPA’s director at the time, organized the show. Antelopes and Queens featured sculptures linked to present-day Mali and identified as Bambara or Bamana, the latter term now prevalent in English and often considered the name of a distinct cultural or ethnic group with its own art style. In a press release timed for the exhibition’s opening, the museum characterized the show as “the first comprehensive exhibition ever assembled of [Bambara art].” The MPA’s focus on works linked to a single cultural or ethnic group was unprecedented, and it created a standard for exhibitions of African art that endured throughout the twentieth century.

In a June 1959 memo to Nelson A. Rockefeller, the MPA’s founder and owner, Goldwater recognized the museum’s collection of arts identified as Bamana as unparalleled, describing it as “the world’s outstanding.” For the 1960 exhibition, the MPA assembled more than a hundred objects from its own collection as well as from private collections and museums in Europe and North America. Highlights of the show included animal-like crest masks regarded as “antelopes” and tall, female figurative sculptures referred to as “queens” (1979.206.158; 1979.206.121). An advance press notice explained: “The graceful, stylized antelope dance headpieces, one of the styles [of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas] most popular with layman and collector alike, and the very rare, majestic . . . figures known as ‘queens’ have given the show its title.” In its press release for the exhibition’s opening, the MPA drew particular attention to the figurative sculptures, noting that the show marked the first time when many of these sculptures would be shown publicly.

MPA curator Douglas Newton collaborated with Goldwater and their colleague Allen Wardwell to install the exhibition. Newton’s installation design reflected the MPA’s interest in presenting museumgoers with so-called antelopes and queens as well as a full range of arts then identified as Bambara. In MPA photographer Charles Uht’s image of the show’s entrance, a tall seated female figure, or “queen,” occupies a platform that runs perpendicular to a wall bearing the exhibition’s name (1978.412.338). His photograph of another gallery shows six “antelope” crest masks, also identified by Goldwater as sogoni koun or ci wara (1978.412.435).

In addition to displaying sculptures in the forms of “antelopes and queens,” the exhibition featured other arts classified as Bamana. One gallery featured helmet masks and other arts of kòmò and kònò power associations. Face masks linked to associations known as ntomo appeared in still another gallery (1979.206.141; 1978.412.368). One of Uht’s photographs shows seven of the face masks in a semicircular display. The gallery’s white walls and spot lighting reflect the MPA’s austere, object-focused approach to exhibition design. Yet below each face mask, a white cloth hung over the display stand hints at outfits masqueraders might have worn with the wooden face masks in performance. This effort to evoke a performer’s full body covering suggests the MPA at times sought to point at different cultural contexts for works exhibited in the museum.

In the exhibition’s accompanying publication, Bambara Sculpture from the Western Sudan, attention to the formal qualities and cultural contexts of the art displayed further distinguished the MPA’s approach to the study of African art. The book includes Goldwater’s essay on cultural contexts for the production and use of art featured in the show based on data he gleaned from observers’ records. It also features images of works he and his colleagues considered exemplars of sculptures then labeled as Bambara.

The MPA’s groundbreaking exhibition and companion publication reinforced the parameters of a style of art identified as Bambara or Bamana throughout the twentieth century. Before the show closed in New York in May 1960, Goldwater recognized the success of the museum’s efforts. In a letter to Jacqueline Delange at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, Goldwater wrote, “We have been pleased with the public response [to the exhibition] and hope to make it a model for similar explorations of other styles and areas.” Goldwater pursued this goal and organized an even larger traveling exhibition of African art dedicated to a single style, Senufo Sculpture from West Africa. The museum opened the latter show in 1963 and published a book of the same name the following year.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, scholars increasingly questioned the validity of assuming a one-to-one correspondence between a cultural or ethnic group and an art style. Indeed, historical documentation indicates that antelope crest masks and other arts labeled as Bamana have transcended linguistic, religious, and cultural boundaries since at least the end of the nineteenth century.