African Art from the Academy's Collection

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    Textiles such as this colorful, proverbial Asafo Flag (ca. 1900) from Ghana’s Fante people, mirror the active daily lives of Africans. (5886.1)

February 12, 2009 - April 05, 2009
Gallery 22

Exhibition Overview

African Art from the Academy Collection represents the diverse cultures from the world’s second largest continent. On view are outstanding examples of African objects such as a Chiwara antelope headdress from Mali used in rituals to ensure healthy crops and teach traditional legends, and a sculptural image of the Yoruban goddess Oshun from Nigeria.

The textiles, as in many traditional cultures, also mirror daily African life. Solemnly marking birth, marriage, and death, the “liminal” times of transition in human life, African textiles play a significant role in complex, ritually sanctioned social customs. They can also boast of the power and the wealth of kings and chiefs or protect the spirit from evil forces. On view are colorful, proverbial, Asafo flags, “cut pile” velvet raffia embroidered cloths of the Kuba kingdom, and “mud” dyed cotton cloths of Mali.

The juxtaposition of textiles and objects provides insight to regional design connections. The striking geometric patterns found in a selection of musese cloth, or cut-pile raffia cloth, are a distinguishing feature of Kuba art from south-central Democratic Republic of the Congo. The small cloths were often sewn together to make a large piece of clothing or used as stool coverings for people of high rank. Kuba men wove the base cloth on a small loom, while the women stitched raffia in dense loops that were cut to make a smooth pile. The geometric patterns—which have names and meaning and often relate to specific kings—resemble the patterns on Kuba wood carvings, as can be seen in wooden cups, a head rest, small lidded containers, a divination implement in the shape of an animal, and bowls on view.

An exhibition highlight is the Female Ancestor Figure from the Bena Lulua people of Zaire. It was used in the tshibola ceremony, which encouraged young children who had died prematuriely to return to life. The elegant, serene pregnant female stands with her hands on her swollen abdomen. Scarification patterns cover the chin and cheeks, neck, chest and abdomen, contrasting with the smooth, dark surface of the body polished with tukula (camwood powder) oil.