The first gallery of Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary at the Metropolitan Museum of Art bears a wall label with a quotation from St. Augustine. He speaks of “the sanctified use [of] instruments and vessels” to memorialize the “righteous and faithful” dead, as a means of maintaining spiritual sustenance.
What follows is a cross-cultural array of artifacts embodying that idea: an African totem from the Fang, a people whose territory encompasses Cameroon, Guinea, Gabon and the Congo Republic; a 13th-century French bust of St. Yrieix; a Belgian arm reliquary; and a Nepalese Buddha. Exhibition curator Alisa LaGamma’s point is that art forms provide the best evidence that even radically different cultures share certain fundamental beliefs and practices.
The Modernist avant-garde made a similar point early in the 20th century with its discovery of African (known then as “primitive”) art. Collector and dealer Paul Guillaume mounted an exhibition pairing paintings by the French Modernist André Derain with African statuary, and Alfred Stieglitz organized similar shows at the legendary 291 gallery.
But Picasso, of all artists, saw past the Modernist obsession with form. Moved by the spiritual power of African art, he proclaimed, “These works of religious art … are the most beautiful of all the products of the human imagination.” Eternal Ancestors joins Picasso in his appreciation of the importance of African art’s ceremonial function—it lays out an astonishing array of African reliquaries with a stately drama appropriate to their role in ritual. Like all great art, the sculptures move us insofar as they give expression to undeniable and vital forces.
The Western response to African cultures is the troubled subtext of Eternal Ancestors. A quartet of French postcards from the 1890’s relegates “exotic” warriors to picturesque souvenirs; their specimenlike character will strike contemporary sensibilities as unfortunate, to put it mildly. Yet European ethnography was indispensable: A short film of a funeral procession, recorded in 1926, is a fascinating example of art’s ability to unite a community.
The Kota, a people located primarily in Gabon, bring a startling simplification of form to the bwete figure, an implement used to contact prominent and powerful forebears. One 19th-century example is shockingly abbreviated: An elongated copper wedge tops a diamondlike body; two punctures standing in for eyes are the lone indication of its figurative status. Fearsomely anonymous, the entity commands and receives respect. Its simplified élan is something Brancusi spent his life chasing.
Emphatic stylization defines African art, but not even the menacing Kwele gorilla mask, a planar construction that’s as convincing a realization of ferocity as we’re likely to see, can match the Kota’s remorseless distillation of form. A Kota vessel lid, for example, portrays a figure holding its arms rigidly to its side, its elongated and sloping head highlighted with white. Short and sharp jabbing incisions ring the mouth. The sculpture calls out with grave insistence. Its “sound” is palpable and foreboding; it’s as intense, if not as anguished, as Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
The showstopper at the end of Eternal Ancestors is a standing female niombo created by the sculptor Makosa of Kingoyi. (Kingoyi was a Swedish missionary site in the Republic of the Congo.) A niombo can be likened to an urn—the word translates into “cadavers” or “corpses”—but to do so sells the Makosa’s sculpture short. It’s a massive effigy measuring over 70 inches high with feet the size of potato sacks. For amateur enthusiasts of African art, this niombo is like nothing else we’ve seen (or expect) from African art.
The ritual involved in making a niombo was kept secret from the community. Mummification and the subsequent wrapping of innumerable layers of cloth required an armature made of cane for support. The size of a niombo, as well as the quality and quantity of its materials, indicated the power of the individual it represented. Given that, this must have been one important woman.
Period photographs, as well as the aforementioned film, exhibit the niombo’s role in funerary rites. Towering over the local population, these enormous figures were carried on a wooden frame by a raft of men. Given the amount of labor that would have gone into making them, their fleeting public appearance were, as Ms. LaGamma notes, flagrantly ostentatious.
A missionary observed that a niombo funeral procession was less somber than celebratory. One of the striking aspects of the figure at the Met is, in fact, its jaunty demeanor. The face radiates kindness; the zig-zag motion of its arms promises a welcoming embrace. Learning that the gesture indicates its direct connection to the afterlife, as well as the capability to root out lies and thwart witchcraft, suggests the niombo’s beneficent nature. It’s a spectacularly heartening culmination to a superlative exhibition.
Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until March 2.