Some art you look at. Some art looks back at you.
That, at least, was my feeling entering the gallery exhibiting Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria and seeing rows of regal heads. Serene but watchful they seem like guardians of the past ready to speak to the present.
Dynasty and Divinity represents a major exhibition of over 100 works never before seen outside of Nigeria. The show is in Houston for its American premiere after stops in Spain and at the British Museum in London, where its popularity necessitated an extended run. These works will be on view through Jan. 9, 2011, at the Audrey Jones Beck Building of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The show coincides with a major reinstallation of the African galleries at the MFAH.
At a press event for the exhibit, Peter Marzio, director of the MFAH, described Dynasty and Divinity as “the most important” show since the landmark 1980 exhibit Treasures of Ancient Nigeria. Many of the objects collected in Dynasty and Divinity were the lucky discovery of tin miners who came across a cache of artifacts in 1937.
Ife (ee-fay) was an ancient kingdom located in modern-day Nigeria. Between the ninth and 15th centuries, artisans produced glorious works in terra cotta and copper that celebrate the grandeur of sovereign rulers whose status was near divine.
Westerners weaned on 20th-century modernist art, which was inspired by problematic fantasies of African primitivism, might find the refinement of this work startling. We tend to accord major moments in Western art, from classical Greek sculpture and architecture to Renaissance painting. Such respect is less often afforded to other rich aesthetic traditions of other parts of the globe. One reason for this is, of course, a dearth of opportunities for viewing African art.
Fortunately, however, Houstonians have opportunities at the Menil and MFAH, which Dynasty and Divinity augments. More impressive is the extensive educational wing of this groundbreaking show. The show itself is funded by the Fundación Marcelino Botín, the Museum for African Art in New York, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
But it is Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments that provides for two educational project managers who will follow the show from Houston to Virginia and then Indiana before it heads to the Museum of African Art. Aisha Bala Ahmad and Mercy Ngozi Okonkwo relish the opportunity to share their culture’s riches with local audiences, including special sessions for local teachers.
“We’re so proud of our traditions,” Ahmad said, and “a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to visit Nigeria,” though she wished more Americans would visit her homeland. Ahmad was impressed particularly by the capacity of American museums to bring together “art from different parts of the world. It’s something we don’t do.”
Okonkwo admitted she had never been to the U.S. before, though she has traveled to China and elsewhere to educate people about Nigerian art. In particular, this show offers a clear example of the near religious reverence accorded ancient kings. The king, Okonkwo said, was a powerful, respected figure because “he restored peace and order” to bring the community together.
At Dynasty and Divinity you’ll see masks and heads of royal figures, most of which are dotted with small holes to which crowns or headdresses would have been attached. Perhaps the most impressive are the copper Mask Called Obalufon, which dates from the 14th or 15th century and the roughly contemporary Head with Crown. As was the case for many medieval European traditions, the sovereign was likened to a god, and these countenances radiate calm divinity.
But almost more impressive than these eloquent faces are the cast figures. Bowman from Jebba Island, is strikingly detailed with textured clothing that belies its metal composition and intricately depicted hair, headdress, amulet and other hunting accessories. Like Bowman, the copper Seated Figure may be missing its arms but it manages to haunt viewers with a communicative face and articulately posed limbs.
Clearly, the artists who created these works mastered the necessary metalworking techniques to convey deep understanding of human anatomy and expression.
Of course some of the figures, like The Messenger seem more representative of their functions. This messenger, with his square feet and crude hands seemed to me less immediately human. But his beads, cross amulet and whiskers indicate he was a stranger and perhaps the most expressive representations are sign of intimacy and belonging.
The faces of these kings may at first seem foreboding but like a good host, the exhibit leaves no one a stranger and welcomes its viewers into a world of unexpected wonders.