Published: October 30, 2001
Birmingham Exhibits African Art from the National Museum of Ethnology, Lisbon
BIRMINGHAM ALA. – A new exhibition of rare and unusual African artworks conveying spiritual and secular power will be on view at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) through December 16.
“: African Art from the National Museum of Ethnology, Lisbon,” provides the first opportunity for many rare masterpieces of African art to be on view in the United States. Culled from the outstanding African art collection of the National Museum of Ethnology, Lisbon, the exhibition features approximately 125 objects that reflect the influences of the supernatural world in both public and private life throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
The exhibition focuses primarily, although not exclusively, on artworks from Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. A group of important artworks from western, central and southern Africa complements this selection. These artifacts demonstrate the rich variety and sculptural inventiveness of the cultures indigenous to these regions and provide insight into many of their spiritual practices.
Highlights include artworks such as figures, decorated stools and chairs, pipes, masks and staffs and dolls used by kings, queens, chiefs, priests, priestesses and diviners to summon spiritual powers. Major themes include and examination of prestige objects and power figures, initiation and funerary rituals, symbols of spiritual and secular authority.
As early as the Fifteenth Century, Portuguese explorers sailed southward, circumnavigating the African continent. In 1483, they first traveled the central Africa, when Diogo Cao sailed into the mouth of the Congo River and established contact with the powerful Kongo Kingdom. Pursuing economic and religious interests, as well as the quest for adventure and discovery, the Portuguese brought sub-Saharan Africa into closer relations with the rest of the world than ever before in history.
Five centuries later, through their magnificent collections of African art and artifacts, the Portuguese are able to impart to the world some of the beauty, power and wonder of Africa and its many cultures.
“” is particularly momentous since no exhibition highlighting the outstanding African collection of the National Museum of Ethnology, Lisbon, has ever traveled to the United States before; indeed, very few of the objects in the museum’s collection have ever been on view outside Europe.
The exhibition features an extraordinary selection of rare initiation masks. Fashioned from a variety of delicate materials such as barkcloth fibers, fabrics and feathers, these masks are exceedingly important in terms of ritual and artistic value. While many wooden African masks survive, it is rare to see more perishable masks such as these still intact. The exhibition’s carefully preserved initiation masks originate from the Chokwe, Ngangela, Mbwela and the Matapa peoples of Angola.
Organizing curator for the exhibition, Frank Merreman, of the Museum for African Art, New York, remarks: “Many of these masks are very vulnerable due to their large size and the perishable nature of their materials. Although their finish is often less refined that that of wooden masks, making them a less frequent choice for traditional collectors in the field, their ritual and artistic importance cannot be underestimated. It is a real treat to find such an important ensemble of authentic initiation masks.”
Four fine examples of wooden initiation masks from Chokwe people are featured: three are Pwo masks that celebrate idealized female beauty, and one is a zoomorphic Mgulu mask of a pig that represents the untamed. The Ngangela and the Mbwela peoples of southern Angola are also represented in the exhibition by initiation masks. Made mostly of barkcloth, these masks differ notably from those of the Chokwe people in that they depict human heads that are painted with geometric designs.
Also included in the exhibition are several Ngangela barkcloth masks that represent animals such as buffalo and serpents. Other remarkable Angolan initiation masks featured in the exhibition are the brightly painted red and blue Matapa masks.
Masks on view from the Bidjogo peoples, of the Bidjogos Archipelago, Guinea-Bissau, are primarily zoomorphic. Representing various land and sea animals including buffalo, fish, hippopotami, birds and pigs, the Bidjogo masks in the exhibition were once worn by adolescent boys during various initiation ceremonies. Additional belts, arm guards and other apparel enhance the young initiate’s costume, likening the wearer to a wild animal. In Bidjogo culture, animals are believed to be mediums to the supernatural world. By invoking animals in cultural ceremonies, the Bidjogo believe that they are accessing forces to help regulate the religious, social and economic structures of their communities.
A striking ensemble of dolls from the Ngangela, Klwanyama, Mwila, and Muchmba or Oncocua peoples from southwestern Angola represents a sampling of some of the region’s finest figural sculpture. Used as toys, fertility symbols and educational tools in the socialization of young girls, the dolls play an important role in traditional community development while documenting popular artistic and decorative practices. Rudimentary in overall design, these dolls are often adorned with bead necklaces, coins and other precious material that serve as amulets, another indication of their important spiritual value.
“” also prominently features objects of prestige, including numerous artworks commissioned to honor the deceased. In many African cultures, graves are particularly important sites for honoring ancestors and making contact with spirits. In addition to ornate chief’s stools, and intricate staffs, pipes and spoons that refer to chiefly and ancestral powers, the exhibition includes several fine examples of grave markers. One highlight is Bakongo soapstone funerary stele of a mother and child, a timeless subject matter known to denote the matrilineal order of Kongo society.
“” is accompanied by a 192-page, four-color catalog, published by the Museum for African Art and featuring essays by several outstanding scholars. It is available from the museum store by calling 205-254-2777.
“” was organized and produced by the Museum for African Art, New York. Birmingham Museum of Art coordinator for the exhibition is Dr Manuel Jordan, former BMA curator of arts of Africa and the Americas.
For information, 205-254-2565.
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