This exhibition introduces the visual arts of Africa south of the Sahara. While it is not intended to be a comprehensive installation, it is a presentation of some of the most familiar and visually compelling imagery from various cultural groups. Included are figures, masks, pottery, and jewelry, works of art that were associated with divination, altars, mask performances, rites of passage, and items of regalia and personal adornment. Aesthetic, thematic, technical and historic concerns have been considered in selecting the works of art.
The works of art are arranged according to geographic and cultural regions. Each section includes a text about the particular region.
Images of Power and Identity was chosen as a title for this exhibition to indicate the importance of the objects to those who commissioned, created, and used them. Power can be political, social, or religious; it can refer to leadership regalia, masks, or sculptures used by various types of social organizations, or to images used in ritual contexts by divination priests and priestesses, or devotees of particular gods. Identity evokes the idea that each object has been created for a specific purpose and within a specific setting. Some images may be identified with spirits, and others may embody human ideals or cultural values.
Art and Artists
African visual artists use a variety of materials. Artists carve wood, stone and ivory, cast or forge metal, model clay, and fashion hides, fibers, and beads into a rich array of forms. Customarily in Africa, men carved wood, ivory, and stone and worked metal, whereas women modeled clay into sculptural and functional forms. Weaving has been practiced by both men and women.
The history of African art, like the history of Africa itself, is still being written. The reconstruction of art history in Africa draws upon oral traditions, early European and Arabic documents, linguistics, and archaeology and scientific examination. Part of the historical record of African art has yet to be recovered; much has been lost because of environmental factors. Most of the art that still survives was probably created during the 19th and 20th centuries.