Alisa LaGamma challenges conventional understanding of key masterpieces of African sculpture. In her new book, Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures, accompanying an exhibition currently on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the curator of the MMA’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas looks at the eminent figures who inspired the works and the cultural values that informed them. Here, she writes about the Western historical and artistic fascination with African art and what you can learn by attending the exhibition.
The art of ekphrasis was deployed by rhetoricians in ancient Greece to evoke a direct encounter with an object for their audience. The ultimate goal of that literary form, not unlike this posting, was to convey some sense of the emotional dimension of an encounter with an unfamiliar work of art. An experience not to be missed is the opportunity to view a singular creation currently on loan to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in a fresh context. The work in question, in the collection of the Musée Dapper in Paris, is among the masterpieces assembled for the special exhibition “Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures.” Fittingly hailed as a “Wonder Woman” by art critic Holland Cotter, it was inspired by a high-ranking priestess with close ties to a Bangwa chief in the Cameroon Grassfields.
Simply standing before this dynamic female sculpture that pulsates with life is electrifying. She is captured with her head thrown back at an angle, mouth open, knees and elbows bent in an active stance with her weight shifted to the right side. Both the rattle grasped in her right hand and animated facial expression suggests that percussive sound and song animating her frenzied movement. The forces of gravity are evident through the downward pull on the prominent conical volumes of her breasts. Across the entire wood surface the carver’s adze marks further contribute to the immediacy of the sculpture’s raw expressive power. To view this artistic landmark as a centerpiece of this exhibition allows us to appreciate what is truly singular about it.While artists who immortalized leaders through sculptural monuments in Africa as elsewhere often favored idealizing them in a timeless manner as static figures with serene and reflexive demeanors, in this instance the subject is energy personified poised to spring into motion.
I’ve observed notable encounters with this formidable female presence that unfailingly elicit telling personal responses. The Metropolitan’s programs relating to the exhibition were launched with a concert by Grammy award winning vocalist Angelique Kidjo. During her many visits to “Heroic Africans” she connected profoundly as a woman and a performer to this work’s vibrancy. New Yorker writer Peter Schjeldahl was ecstatic about its virtuosity as a great sculptural achievement capable of holding its own with the best of any modern master from Rodin to Giacometti. For me, the work’s captivating intensity calls to mind what might seem like an unlikely comparison in the history of art. I remember the awe and fascination that Donatello’s extraordinary sculptural depiction of Mary Magdalene in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence elicited in me the first time I ever encountered it as a child.
In my opinion, both these exceptional artistic representations are unrivaled in the rawness with which they portray their female subjects. At the same time their unorthodox aesthetic treatment provides daring and transcendent visions of female power. The wondrous Bangwa woman embodies a boundless vitality and assertive self-sufficiency while the penitent Mary as ascetic cloaked in her shroud of hair retains a hint of its former glory through its gold highlights.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the author of the Bangwa female was charged with creating a work that paid tribute to its influential subject. The intention was that through this commemorative marker she would endure in her community beyond her lifetime. On important occasions of state the work was placed on public view along with a series of related depictions of the leadership of her group’s chieftaincy going back many generations. In 1897 the work was removed from that context by the German colonial agent Gustav Conrau. At that time it ceased to be understood as a particular historical figure and was transferred into Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde collection. Not long after, the museum agreed to deaccession it to the art dealer Arthur Speyer. By 1935 it was in the Paris gallery of Charles Ratton where it was seen and photographed by Man Ray.
An ironic twist in its reception in the West is the fact that one of the signature creations of that generation of the avant-garde, Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” of 1912, might be viewed as derivative in light of this earlier African creation. In that painting a fractured female figure is represented in a series of some twenty different static positions to depict the idea of movement. In commenting on the impetus for that work, Duchamp noted “I wanted to create a static image of movement: movement is an abstraction, a deduction articulated within the painting…Fundamentally, movement is in the eye of the spectator, who incorporates it into painting” (Pierre Cabanne 1971 Art Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp Thames and Hudson, London). The work was rejected by the Cubist painters on the committee of the Salon des Indépendents in Paris the year it was created and dismissed on the basis of the argument that “A nude never descends the stairs – a nude reclines.” The following year it created a sensation in New York where it was shown at the Armory exhibition of contemporary art.
Duchamp always conceived of his nude as a theoretical notation. For the Bangwa master who released the dancing priestess from a block of wood, the stakes were greater as he was charged with transforming inert matter into a living monument. “Heroic Africans” proposes that we consider this work not as an abstraction but as a representation by a master sculptor who was inspired by the sheer force of personality of a particular woman who lived in a Bangwa chiefdom several hundred years ago.
Alisa LaGamma is Curator, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.