What Leaders Look Like: A Continental Shift
Published: September 22, 2011
If you still think that African art is not your thing, there’s an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum that may change your mind. It’s called “Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures,” and it’s as beautiful to look at as a show can possibly be.
Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium
It’s a perception changer in other ways too, as it argues, through demonstration, against basic misunderstandings surrounding this art. African art has no history? No independent tradition of realism? No portraiture? All African sculpture looks basically alike, meaning “primitive”? African and Western art are fundamentally different in content and purpose? Wrong across the board.
Art from sub-Saharan Africa is some of the oldest known, dating back tens of thousands of years. In the exhibition the oldest pieces are naturalistic, portraitlike terra-cotta heads from southwestern Nigeria from the 12th century.
Before the modern era, ancient African chronicles were passed on by word of mouth, from storyteller to storyteller, and many sculptures, early and late, embody centuries-old accounts of real people and real lives. They compress them into a visual shorthand the way oral tradition compresses generations-long narratives.
Even a quick stroll through this exhibition’s eight sections, each devoted to a different West or Central African art tradition, confirms African art’s variety, in a stylistic spectrum stretching from detail-perfect representation to near-abstraction. And as to African art’s pertinence to Western concerns, suffice it to say that almost all the sculpture in this exhibition is asking a question that is foremost on the mind of many Americans in the early stages of the presidential campaign: what are the qualities we want and need in our political leaders?
To ease our way into all of this, the show begins with a comparative look at political power portraits from Africa and the West: a 17th-century brass head depicting a ruler of the kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, and a carved marble bust of the Roman emperor Octavian, who called himself Augustus, from around A.D. 5.
Augustus’ portrait is of a familiarly naturalistic type; we know his name because it was written down and is found on many identical portraits. The naturalism of the Benin head is highly stylized, and the name of the ruler unknown, lost with the spoken histories erased by colonialism.
Despite their differences, though, neither “portrait” is more or less realistic than the other. Augustus is depicted as a Greek Apollo with a Roman haircut. The Benin king, wide-eyed and plump, almost bursting with good health, conforms to an African ideal of regal well-being. Both portraits commemorate real people who lived and died, but are, before all else, abstract emblems of ethical standards to be emulated and political power to be revered.
And since political power was usually accompanied by wealth throughout Africa, as everywhere else, the ruling elite drew on top-rank talent and technology when commissioning art. This is evident in the Benin royal portraits and in the terra-cotta heads produced in the Yoruba capital, Ife, also in Nigeria, between the 12th and 15th centuries.
With their soft, grave naturalism, these heads have an automatic appeal to the Western eye, and the seven examples in the show are simply out of this world. All have similar sensuous features: full lips, almond eyes and all-over patterns of vertical striations, read by some experts as cosmetic scarring, by others as representing shadows cast by beaded veils attached to royal crowns.
Despite the similarities, each face is subtly particularized, suggesting that they were all inspired by living models, though exactly who they may have been and how these portraits — if they are portraits — were meant to function remain mysteries.
But one thing is sure: many of them predate colonial contact. This means that realism in art, which the West tends to view as its distinctive accomplishment, developed independently in Africa, though there, with so many other rich options available, it was only sporadically esteemed.
Terra-cotta sculpture also flourished among the Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast in the 17th and 18th centuries, but sometimes in semiabstract form. In memorial shrine effigies of honored individuals made in the Kwahu region of Ghana, for example, the head, balanced atop a long neck that is also a body, is as flat as a plate and tilted upward so that small, pinched facial features look to the sky.