Object after object, there is no more beautiful exhibition in the city than The African Origins of Civilization at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There is no other one riddled with ethical and political contradictions.
A collection of 42 sculptures in one of the Met’s Egyptian galleries brings together here for the first time works from its ancient Egyptian and African possessions located south of the Sahara, centuries apart (the earliest sub-Saharan work exhibited dates back to the 13th century). The pretext for showing is practical. It immediately follows the recent closure for refurbishment of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing and its Art of Africa galleries (the wing is scheduled to open in 2024). It is a way of keeping some of its treasures in view and directly recognizing Africa itself as the source of human culture.
The exhibition comes at a time when the history of African art in Western museums – how it got there, how it is treated – is under scrutiny. The Met’s holdings from the African continent have always been housed in two sections far apart – literally on opposite ends of the Fifth Avenue building – reflecting the antiquated, racist Western distinction between “high” culture (Egypt) and “primitive” culture (much of the rest of Africa) . The exhibition is a gesture of unification, however, since architecture is destiny, the old division is likely to remain intact on a larger scale within the museum’s geography after the renovation of the Rockefeller Wing.
The exhibition also coincides with a moment of heightened international awareness of Western colonialism in Africa and the predatory realities of art collecting on the continent. In some European countries – Belgium, France, Germany – restitution measures have recently been taken. The Met itself recently returned two of the many Beninese sculptures in its holdings to Nigeria. However, there is little to no mention of this in the series. You must review the information in the footnotes – origin references in object labels – to find out about this thieving story.
Instead, its organizers—Alice LaGamma, curator of African, Oceanic, and American arts, and Diana Craig Patch, curator of Egyptian art—told us a different, smaller story of the Met’s own acquisition of art from Africa and the changes in cultural and aesthetic perception that story.
As the ancient Greeks admired and learned from Egyptian dynastic art, the founding Hellenophiles of the Met also admired it. At the same time, for them, almost any other art from Africa was not “art” and belonged to the American Museum of Natural History across Central Park. The change in institutional attitude only became apparent in the late 1960s, when the Met began acquiring the collection of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Museum of Primitive Art and built a wing to store it in 1982.
From the date of purchase on the labels, you can trace which items, early and late, have ever found their way into the Met’s collections, and thus track the progress of the museum’s investment in representing and promoting the art of Africa. But the curators have included the story in an old-fashioned “masterpiece show” consisting of a selection of the greatest hits from select African collections they are in charge of.
And what a selection! Surprises shoulder to shoulder, presented in pairs of comparison and contrast. Wherever you turn, in the melee treasure chest, you will be amazed.
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Under the label “Basic Connection” are two sculptures of approximately the same size, about three feet high, separated by millennia. On a high relief carving in Egyptian limestone dated between 2575-2465 B.C. BC, a man and a woman named Memi and Sabu froze facing forward as if frozen for a photograph. They are youthful, yellow and alert, with the male dominating. A head taller than his mate, his left arm wraps around her shoulder; his hand covers her chest.
Another freestanding sculpture was carved from a single piece of wood by a Dogon artist in Mali in the 18th or early 19th century. This is where gender size hierarchies balance out. The figures are almost the same height, and their features are selected with delicate, almost mathematical precision, down to the attributes that determine their roles in life: a quiver with arrows tied to the back of a man, and a wrapped baby that a woman wears on her own. also the same size.
The Met’s early standards of sculptural beauty were set by the Western “classical” tradition, in which the art of Ancient Egypt was given honorable mention. My standards have been shaped throughout my life by exposure to others, other traditions, some of which are still considered “primitive”. But in the case of these two African objects “more beautiful” as a comparative category simply does not apply.
In any case, comparisons between cultures can be slippery unless they are based on evidence, which is not the case here. Nowhere, for example, are the curators trying to demonstrate that the art of ancient Egypt was a direct source of 19th and 20th century art from Ghana, Mali, or Sudan. And many of the conceptual themes under which the objects have been placed – “Memory of Beauty”, “Awe inspiring Powers”, “Craftsmanship of Metals” – are so vague that they can fit almost everything.
In fact and effectively, these pairings are based on morphology, shape, form, visual motif – it looks like – that immediately draws the eye into the game.
No special knowledge is needed to see that the fist-shaped figure of a lion cub, carved and scraped from white quartzite in early dynastic Egypt and pulsing with life, is a miracle of human empathy for an animal. Or that a sleek copper leopard from the Edo period (1550-1680 AD), cast in a Benin court workshop in what is now Nigeria, is a four-legged embodiment of royalty.
A hippo-shaped power object from 20th-century Mali, molded from earth mixed with alcohol and blood, is similar enough to a hand grenade to merit a theme in which it appears under the title “Use of Danger”. But what about the nice little faience hippo in the same shop window? Made in the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, it was affectionately known to generations of Met visitors as “William”. You will learn from the label that this tomb keeper was considered so aggressive in his zeal for protection that his legs were cut off before burial so that he would not harm his human owner in the afterlife. (The three legs he now has have been replaced with modern ones.)
In the Majestic Pillows category, you’ll find an Egyptian alabaster headrest that glows like a lotus, designed for eternal sleep, and a 19th-century wooden headrest from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, designed to protect a sleeping woman’s hair. (The artist who carved it is known as the master of the cascading hairstyle, and his style is reflected in the shape of the headrest.)
However, the most fascinating images are those of bodies and faces: human, divine, or both.
Two tall nude men carved in wood, one from Old Kingdom Egypt, the other from 19th century Sudan, are memorial figures of equal gravity, noble as monarchs and lithe as dancers. Some of the sculptures may have been intended as portraits, although the names associated with them are lost, as in the case of a fragmentary head of an Egyptian queen carved from honey-yellow jasper. And some similarities have been preserved with intact personalities. The 16th-century ivory pendant – the icon of the Rockefeller Wing – depicts the mother and chief adviser to the Benin king. The old man’s drooping-lipped, heavy-eyed quartzite face, cracked from time, belongs to the Egyptian king Senusret III, although it could well be a snapshot of the sad man who sat across from you on the subway last night.
Technically, the exhibition is spread over a larger museum with several strategic locations for African work. The wide-eyed mighty figure of Kongo, dedicated to the hunt for evil, disturbs the peace of Greek and Roman galleries. A flock of Ethiopian processional crosses floats in the Medieval Hall. Upstairs in the galleries of European paintings, a wood carved Malian maternal figure respectfully referred to as “Gwandansu” stands next to Jusepe de Ribera’s monumental 1648 painting “The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria”.
Creating such points of light across cultures is important as new audiences emerge and “familiar” and “strangers” begin to switch places. The day will come – has it already arrived? — when the influential Kongo figure is as familiar to the Met audience as the Greek kouros, and “Gwandansu” helps to explain what “Madonna” means. The idea of beauty can be all-encompassing and yet leave differences intact.
In this regard, The African Origins of Civilization is certainly significant. But as a preview of Michael S. Rockefeller’s updated wing, it also has issues. It is not enough to simply redesign and rearrange the wing. It needs to be conceptually rethought at all levels, which will not be an easy task for the Met, which, like all our big traditional museums, is deeply conservative.
In this rethinking, it is vital to include Egypt in the history of the “art of Africa”, as the current exhibition does. And it will be necessary to politicize the art criticism narrative. The African collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (both the Oceania collection and the America collection) is indirectly about colonialism, about how art was moved – as a result of aggression or consent, with one often moving to another – from its place of origin.
For example, there is no ethical way to flatten, let alone omit, the story of the bloody British military occupation of Benin in the 19th century. (For a full understanding of its realities, I recommend Dan Hicks’ 2021 book Animal Museums: Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution.)
And it will be important to highlight the extent to which much of the sub-Saharan African art in the collection is intrinsically and often overtly O ethics about the work of social justice; about the right life in personal, social and spiritual terms; about the striving for balance in the natural world, all this manifests itself in the accusatory energy of an influential figure, in the mountain tranquility of Gwangdansu and in the sun-gazing, sky-gazing horns of an antelope-shaped crop mask from Mali.
We badly need teaching on these ideas. And, as this show at the Met shows, nowhere on earth they are taught with such dizzying, bewitching beauty as in the art of Africa.
African origin of civilization
Ongoing, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, 212-535-7710; www.metmuseum.org.