Middlebury College Museum of Art

News & Events

African Masterpieces Come to Middlebury

August 16, 2007

“Resonance from the Past: African Sculpture from the New Orleans Museum of Art”

September 18–December 9, 2007

For immediate release: 8/16/07
For further information contact: Colin Mackenzie, (802) 443–5558

Middlebury, VT— This fall the Middlebury College Museum of Art presents a rare opportunity to view masterpieces of African Art.Resonance from the Past: African Sculpture from the New Orleans Museum of Art includes more than 80 outstanding works of art produced by peoples inhabiting the regions of Central and West Sub-Saharan Africa from the late 17th to the second half of the 20th century. The objects—masks, figures, costumes, ceramics, beadwork, and ivory carvings—were used in ceremonies and rituals and reveal much about the religious beliefs and social structures of the peoples who created and used them.

A strength of the show is its great variety of masks. A carved wood female mourning mask created by the Puno/Lumbo peoples of Gabon is an object of sublime beauty exuding a sense of dignity in the face of sorrow. Other masks include a crested helmet mask covered in blue and white beads, a menacing 20th-century helmet mask made of wood, bones, teeth, horns, feathers, and fiber rope from Cameroon, a Ngafui mask from the Liberia/Guinea border, and a faceted wood crest mask that is strikingly Cubist in design.  Although diverse in form, all of these masks were used in initiation, fertility, or ancestor worship ceremonies, many of them centered on dance, and were thus central to the spiritual life of their creators.

Among the earliest artifacts in the exhibition is a 17th-century terracotta commemorative head made   by the Edo peoples of the Benin Kingdom in present-day Nigeria. With its tubular neck constricted by notched rings and its puffed-out cheeks, it expresses an intense sense of life-force. Other early objects include a 16th-17th century brass plaque beautifully embossed with a leopard against a background of engraved rosettes, and a striking brass ancestor shrine figure used in rituals of the Osugbo association of the Yoruba peoples of Western Nigeria. Ancestor cults played an important role in the societies of the region and ancestor screens such as one from the town of Abonnema in Nigeria commemorated wealthy traders who often amassed their riches through trade with Europeans.

Dramatic wooden sculptures, many depicting females, abound in the exhibition, and these, like a figure made by the Bamana peoples of Mali, often played an important role in the associations that provided a framework for men (and occasionally women) to learn and practice their social, political, and spiritual roles within their societies. Other figures, like a group from the Fang peoples of Gabon, served as guardians surmounting reliquary boxes that housed the bones of the deceased.

Although most of the works are by anonymous artists, two of the most famous Nigerian sculptors of the early 20th century—Areogun of Osi-Ilorin and Olowe of Ise—are represented. A sculpted house post by Olowe and an intricate figurative bowl and tray by Areogun suggest how individual genius modifies what is often taken to be a traditional African style attributed to an ethnic group, in this case the Yoruba. Here we see how individual artists continuously redefine conventional forms.

Two remarkable textiles in the exhibition are an early 20th-century masquerade costume of the Yoruba peoples fashioned out of many disparate silk fabrics and embellished with glass beads and cowry shells and a late 19th- to early 20th-century king’s tunic boldly woven in dramatic tones of red, orange, blue, and black. These and other textiles illustrate how costume is used to define ritual function and political authority. Other noteworthy works in the exhibition are iron staffs used on altars by the Dogon of Mali and a carved door from the Baule of Côte d’Ivoire, which shows a large fish devouring a member of its own species—a reference to a traditional Baule proverb that warns against internal dissension. A wooden rice ladle of the Dan peoples of Côte d’Ivoire furnished with a beautifully carved handle in the form of a woman’s head is a ceremonial object symbolic of the rank of the chief’s first wife, who would have offered it to her first-born son after his initiation into adulthood.

The year 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, a practice that continued in the Americas for another 50 years. This stunning exhibition reminds us that throughout this period Africa was home to cultures of sophistication and spirituality that gave rise to stunning aesthetic achievements. Indeed, works of art such as these profoundly influenced artistic production in the West during the 20th century, and visitors to the exhibition may note the uncanny similarity between many of the works on view and those produced by the Cubists.

Resonance from the Past is a collaboration between the Museum for African Art, New York, and the New Orleans Museum of Art and is guest-curated by Frank Herreman. This is the final venue of an exhibition tour that has included the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Arkansas Arts Center, The Albuquerque Museum and the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. The New Orleans Museum of Art was among the earliest of American municipal museums to devote significant resources to the arts of Africa.

The accompanying 150-page full color catalogue, which is available for purchase at the Middlebury College Museum of Art bookstore, includes entries by more than 20 scholars of African art and an essay by Robert Farris Thompson on the affinities between African art, American heritage, and jazz. Professor Thompson, the Colonel John Trumbull Professor of History of Art at Yale University, is the leading authority on African survivals in African American culture.

In conjunction with the exhibition the Museum will offer a school program for grades 5–12. There will be a teacher workshop on Thurs., Sept. 27, from 3–5:30 p.m., and guided tours for school groups will be available from Oct. 9–Dec. 7. For further information or to register for the teacher workshop and school programs, please contact Sandi Olivo, curator of education, at (802) 443-2248 or olivo@middlebury.edu.

The Middlebury College Museum of Art is free and open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays. The Museum is accessible to people with varying disabilities. Parking is available in the Center for the Arts parking lot. For further information, please call (802) 443–5007 or TTY (802) 443–3155, or visit the Museum’s website at http://museum.middlebury.edu/.