April 4, 2013

African Faces, at the Brooklyn Museum

Male head, unidentified Nok culture artist, 550-50 B.C.E., Nigeria; terracotta.

The Brooklyn Museum has a small, but very fine collection of African sculpture. When I recently visited the museum, I was struck by the variety and the strength of the heads on view, whether masks or portraits. Throughout the sub-Saharan continent, artists seemed to have all had a remarkable sense of design, translating the human form into iconic beings. I was surprised by the early date of the head above, from a culture of which not much is known, except that it arose at the earliest iron-smelting sites in Africa. It was probably part of a near life-sized figure. I find that the repetition of the curving forms––of eyebrows, lower eyes, cheeks, and mouth––creates a compelling rhythm.  

Female Kifwebe mask, unidentified Songye or Luba artist, late 19th or early 20th century, Democratic Republic of the Congo; wood, pigment.

Linear rhythms adorn this stunning head, with diagonal lines leading to the rectangular open mouth. 

Lukwakongo mask, unidentified Lega artist, 19th or early 20th century, Democratic Republic of the Congo; wood, kaolin.

There is a beautiful simplicity of form in this work, the curve surrounding the face becoming the nose; it is subtle and sophisticated. It is very easy to understand why Picasso and other modernists were fascinated with the forms of African art.

Male Face Mask, Unidentified Fang artist, late 19th century, Gabon; wood, clay.

Again a curve surrounding the face, but here there are added patterns. 

Pwoom Itok mask, unidentified Kuba artist, late 19th century, Democratic Republic of the Congo; wood, shell, cloth, raffia, pigment.

This elaborate mask may have been used in boys' initiation ceremonies, and probably had feathers adorning it. As opposed to the calm visages above, this face is fierce. 

Helmet Mask for Sande Society, The Nguabu Master, late 19th to early 20th century, Sierra Leone; wood, pigment.

The forms of this piece are so unexpected: the full, flapping headdress, the wide compressed face, the curve of cheek repeated under the chin.

Beaded Crown of Onijagbo Obasoro Alowoludu, Ogoga of Ikere (1890-1928), unidentified Yoruba artist, late 19th century, Nigeria; basketry, beads, cloth. 

I love the stylized faces on this crown, a symbol of Yoruba kingship. These attendant figures symbolize the king's status. To me they have a benign, even humorous presence, but they may have seemed more forbidding to the king's subjects.

Ndop portrait of King Mishe mi Shyaang maMbul, unidentified Kuba artist, 18th century, Democratic Republic of the Congo; wood, camwood powder. 

A Ndop portrait, I learn from the wall label, is an idealized one, and this is probably the oldest one known. The square form of the hat just out from the rounded forms of head and facial features, a calm and abiding portrait.

Soul Container, unidentified Bijagó artist, late 19th or early 20th century, Guinea-Bissau; 
wood, earth, crushed plant materials, copper alloy chain, organic materials.

Finally, this uncanny figure, with its white eyes and elongated form. It is a container for the soul: "according to Bijagó beliefs, a person's soul lives on after the body, but only as long as it is remembered by the person's family. Thus it is necessary to create a repository for the soul and to provide it with sacrifices". (from the wall label) African sculpture is full of magic, and I find this concept of a soul container to be magical and beautiful.

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