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Metaphysical Culture

Unlike most spiritually inspired Western art, the sub-Saharan African works on display in the Met's "Art and Oracle" haven't lost their religion.


Before the opening of Art and Oracle: Spirit Voices of Africa at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dr. Wande Abimbola, a Yoruba high priest, delivered an invocation and blessed the objects on view. It was an unusual moment. Would an Eastern Orthodox priest bless an exhibition of, say, Byzantine icons at a Western museum? Probably not. Such icons are now regarded primarily as paintings; any residual concern over their spiritual purpose is eased by the quasi-religious respect a museum pays to "great art." But much African art still seems religiously alive and therefore not entirely at home in a secular environment. The time has not yet come when it can be abandoned without qualm to a museum and left to the aesthetic delectation of strangers. A priest must grant dispensation.

The current show -- organized by Alisa LaGamma of the Met and Lorenz Homberger of the Rietberg Museum in Zurich -- emphasizes this religious quality. The curators have brought together about 200 works employed by Africans from the sub-Saharan regions to communicate with ancestors, spirits, and gods. Very often, an artist or craftsman would work hand-in-hand with a priest in order to create an object that served a specific function. On the grandest level, destiny itself might be divined -- and defiantly challenged. In the late nineteenth century, for example, French colonial forces attacked the king of Dahomey; this came as no surprise to the people, for his reign was predicted to be one of turmoil. The large Divination Portrait of King Gbehanzin as Man-Shark presents the king as a fierce creature determined to prevail over fate itself. And yet there is something about the outstretched arms that conveys vulnerability as well as triumph -- as if the shark-man were crying out in supplication and anger.

On a less lofty note, artists and diviners sought the intervention of spirits to help solve the practical problems of life. A maternity figure might bring a child to an infertile couple; women would often anoint such figures or place ritual "medicines" into holes or cavities in the wood. Human illness also led to the creation of many divinatory works. In Yassi Society Figure: Female Figure With Tray Base, an ethereal female form seems to float above a bowl, as if she could provide both physical and spiritual sustenance. The strongest pieces in the show invariably occupy a strange sphere between the material and the metaphysical. Basinjom Mask and Costume, which was made in Cameroon in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, is an extraordinary cloak-and-mask ensemble that turns the man who wears it into a medium for a spirit that represents, according to the catalogue, "the voice of unerring prophecy." This spirit voice seems to draw its authority from land, water, and air: A tiara of feathers rises from the crocodilian head, and the figure is adorned by shells, bits of mirror, porcupine quills, the skin of a wild cat, and what looks
like grass.

More than 50 different cultural traditions from the sub-Saharan region -- none of them very familiar to Western viewers -- are represented in this show. As a result, most people will glide over the complex and varied religious meanings and iconography on display. But the religious emphasis of the exhibit does keep the work from being regarded as simply exotic sculpture that could enhance the corner of a living room. A great power attaches to objects that are not conceived, first and foremost, as works of art. These African pieces -- like Byzantine icons -- are not intended to be pretty, pleasing, arty, or merely decorative. They are intended to be powerful. Their visual strength serves that perspective. They are, quite literally, a matter of life and death. If religious Africans are uncomfortable seeing this art isolated in glass boxes at the Met, Westerners, too, must sense the loss experienced by their own secular tradition -- for art undisciplined by religion rarely reaches the far corners of the soul.


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