Culture & ArtExhibitsPress Release

Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

  • September 21, 2011 – January 29, 2012
  • Press Preview: Monday, September 19, 10 a.m. – noon

A major international loan exhibition that challenges conventional perceptions of African art will go on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning September 21. Bringing together more than 100 masterpieces drawn from collections in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Portugal, France, and the United States, Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures considers eight landmark sculptural traditions from West and Central Africa created between the 12th and early 20th centuries in terms of the individual subjects who lie at the origins of the representations. Analysis of each of these will consider the historical circumstances and cultural values that inform the artistic landmarks presented.

The exhibition is made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ceil & Michael E. Pulitzer Foundation, Inc.

The works that will be featured are among the only tangible links that survive relating to generations of leaders that shaped Africa’s past before colonialism among the Akan of Ghana, ancient Ife civilization and the Kingdom of Benin of Nigeria, Bangwa and Kom chiefdoms of the Cameroon Grassfields, the Chokwe of Angola and Zambia, and the Luluwa, Hemba, and Kuba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Harnessing materials ranging from humble clay, ubiquitous wood, precious ivory, and costly metal alloys, sculptors from these regions captured evocative, idealized and enduring likenesses of their individual patrons whose identities were otherwise recorded in ephemeral oral traditions.

The exhibition will open by posing the question—who are the individuals that the most gifted artists of their respective time and culture depicted for posterity? Over the centuries across sub-Saharan Africa, artists memorialized for posterity eminent individuals of their societies in an astonishingly diverse repertory of regional sculptural idioms, both naturalistic and abstract, that commemorate their subjects through customized aesthetic formulations. The original patrons of such depictions intended for them to act as concrete points of reference to specific elite members of a given community. For over a century, however, isolation of those creations from the sites, oral traditions, and socio-cultural contexts in which they were conceived, has led them to be seen as timeless abstractions of generic archetypes. On a purely formal level it is not self-evident that these works were produced in honor of admired individuals. Instead cultural context is the key to our appreciation of the significance of such representations and ability to connect them to their historical subjects. While information about those figures has been touched upon in the academic literature of African studies, such a body of work has never before been assembled in an exhibition. Heroic Africans presents an unparalleled opportunity to bring to life oral history in visual terms and put a face on Africa’s pre-colonial history for the widest possible audience.

An in depth look at one of Central Africa’s most dazzling sculptural genres unfamiliar to American audiences will be a highlight of the exhibition. During the 19th century Hemba masters in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo paid tribute to their leaders through these freestanding wood sculptures impressive for their scale and elegance. An unprecedented assemblage of 22 superb works from this sublime tradition will be gathered together for the first time and offer viewers an opportunity to examine the subtle distinctions that may be discerned among masterpieces that rank among the most impressive artistic achievements from sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to key works central to the Metropolitan’s own collection, outstanding loans will be contributed by: The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth; The Seattle Art Museum; The Cleveland Museum of Art; Minneapolis Museum of Art; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art; The Brooklyn Museum of Art; The British Museum; The Welkulturen Museum, Frankfurt; The Volkerkunde Museum, Berlin; the Dapper Museum and Quai Branly, Paris; Museum aan de Stroom [MAS], Antwerp and the Afrika Museum in Tervuren, Belgium; and the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia and Museu Etnográfico-Sociedade de Geografia, Lisbon. A European venue of the exhibition will follow at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich.

A variety of educational programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including a Sunday at the Met program, gallery talks, films, and programs for visitors with disabilities.

The exhibition will be featured on the Museum’s Web site (www.metmuseum.org).

An Audio Guide of the exhibition will be available for rental ($7, $6 for members, and $5 for children under 12).

The Audio Guide is sponsored by Bloomberg.

This exhibition is organized by Alisa LaGamma, Curator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. It will be accompanied by a catalogue to be published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition catalogue is made possible by The MCS Endowment Fund.

# # #

  • September 21, 2011 – January 29, 2012
  • Press Preview: Monday, September 19, 10 a.m. – noon

A major international loan exhibition that challenges conventional perceptions of African art will go on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning September 21. Bringing together more than 100 masterpieces drawn from collections in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Portugal, France, and the United States, Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures considers eight landmark sculptural traditions from West and Central Africa created between the 12th and early 20th centuries in terms of the individual subjects who lie at the origins of the representations. Analysis of each of these will consider the historical circumstances and cultural values that inform the artistic landmarks presented.

The exhibition is made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ceil & Michael E. Pulitzer Foundation, Inc.

The works that will be featured are among the only tangible links that survive relating to generations of leaders that shaped Africa’s past before colonialism among the Akan of Ghana, ancient Ife civilization and the Kingdom of Benin of Nigeria, Bangwa and Kom chiefdoms of the Cameroon Grassfields, the Chokwe of Angola and Zambia, and the Luluwa, Hemba, and Kuba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Harnessing materials ranging from humble clay, ubiquitous wood, precious ivory, and costly metal alloys, sculptors from these regions captured evocative, idealized and enduring likenesses of their individual patrons whose identities were otherwise recorded in ephemeral oral traditions.

The exhibition will open by posing the question—who are the individuals that the most gifted artists of their respective time and culture depicted for posterity? Over the centuries across sub-Saharan Africa, artists memorialized for posterity eminent individuals of their societies in an astonishingly diverse repertory of regional sculptural idioms, both naturalistic and abstract, that commemorate their subjects through customized aesthetic formulations. The original patrons of such depictions intended for them to act as concrete points of reference to specific elite members of a given community. For over a century, however, isolation of those creations from the sites, oral traditions, and socio-cultural contexts in which they were conceived, has led them to be seen as timeless abstractions of generic archetypes. On a purely formal level it is not self-evident that these works were produced in honor of admired individuals. Instead cultural context is the key to our appreciation of the significance of such representations and ability to connect them to their historical subjects. While information about those figures has been touched upon in the academic literature of African studies, such a body of work has never before been assembled in an exhibition. Heroic Africans presents an unparalleled opportunity to bring to life oral history in visual terms and put a face on Africa’s pre-colonial history for the widest possible audience.

An in depth look at one of Central Africa’s most dazzling sculptural genres unfamiliar to American audiences will be a highlight of the exhibition. During the 19th century Hemba masters in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo paid tribute to their leaders through these freestanding wood sculptures impressive for their scale and elegance. An unprecedented assemblage of 22 superb works from this sublime tradition will be gathered together for the first time and offer viewers an opportunity to examine the subtle distinctions that may be discerned among masterpieces that rank among the most impressive artistic achievements from sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to key works central to the Metropolitan’s own collection, outstanding loans will be contributed by: The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth; The Seattle Art Museum; The Cleveland Museum of Art; Minneapolis Museum of Art; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art; The Brooklyn Museum of Art; The British Museum; The Welkulturen Museum, Frankfurt; The Volkerkunde Museum, Berlin; the Dapper Museum and Quai Branly, Paris; Museum aan de Stroom [MAS], Antwerp and the Afrika Museum in Tervuren, Belgium; and the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia and Museu Etnográfico-Sociedade de Geografia, Lisbon. A European venue of the exhibition will follow at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich.

A variety of educational programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including a Sunday at the Met program, gallery talks, films, and programs for visitors with disabilities.

The exhibition will be featured on the Museum’s Web site (www.metmuseum.org).

An Audio Guide of the exhibition will be available for rental ($7, $6 for members, and $5 for children under 12).

The Audio Guide is sponsored by Bloomberg.

This exhibition is organized by Alisa LaGamma, Curator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. It will be accompanied by a catalogue to be published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition catalogue is made possible by The MCS Endowment Fund.

# # #

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