Anonymous Yoruban Sculptor, Portrait Head (circa, 12th-14th century), terracotta; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Of the responses we experience when faced with a great work of art, one of the most basic is purely acquisitive: When an object is of such beauty that we can’t imagine living without it, we want to stuff it in our backpack and trot on home with it. Another response is just as sincere and more community-minded: the need to alert friends that there’s a super piece of art in the vicinity.
I experienced both reactions looking at the terra cotta head displayed at the entrance to Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dating between the 12th and 14th centuries and measuring less than nine inches in height, the head was crafted by an anonymous artist belonging to the Yoruba, a people who trace their origins to the city of Ife Ife in present-day Nigeria. The most striking aspect of the head–at least for those us who are enthusiasts of, rather than experts in, African art–is its naturalism. With its supple indicators of bone and muscle, the piece is without the extreme distortions of anatomy typical of African art. Mere divergence from the norm doesn’t account for its extraordinary power, however. The head’s imposing calm and aristocratic mien are intrinsic to its form, as is the unearthly sensuality it radiates. I’ve never seen anything like it. Standing in front of it, I didn’t want to see anything else.
“The profounder forms of art,” visitors read on the introductory wall label, are “retrieval vehicles for, or assertive links with, a lost sense of origin.” This lovely bit of phrase-making from the Nigerian author Wole Soyinka goes straight to the heart of Genesis: The show explores how disparate, if geographically linked, cultures gave body to their own particular beliefs about the nature of the universe and the role they occupied within it.
Organized by Alisa LaGamma, the Met’s associate curator in the Department of the Arts, Oceania and the Americas, the exhibition has been installed with a noticeable sensitivity–the strengths of each work are put into sharp focus. Of course, picking the right object is important, too, and Ms. LaGamma has chosen some doozies here. Particularly arresting are two headdresses by the Bamana peoples of Mali, both of which, as distillations of form, are elegant and outrageous. The lone drawback is the obligatory video: Though it serves an educational purpose (it documents how certain objects are used in dance and ritual), it ultimately distracts, drawing viewers away from the art on hand. Humankind somehow managed to appreciate art before the advent of television–a lesson that would seem a natural with an exhibition canted toward the elemental.
© 2003 Mario Naves
This article was originally published in the January 20, 2003 edition of The New York Observer.