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Echoing Images

Couples in African Sculpture

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

February 10 to September 5, 2004

Commemorative couple, Vezo peoples

Commemorative Couple, Vezo peoples, Madagascar, 19th-20th Century, wood, male figure is 22 7/8 inches high, the female figure is 17 11/16 inches high, private collection

By Carter B. Horsley

In contrast with the stupendous and gargantuan exhibition on Byzantium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the spring of 2004, this intimate show of "Echoing Images, Couples in African Sculpture" at the same institution demonstrates the maxim that small can often be better.

A themed rather than chronological show, it is not encyclopedic but the few objects on display are mostly of extremely high and memorable quality.

The finest "couple" in the exhibition is unquestionably a 19th-20th Century commemorative couple, Vezo peoples, from Madagascar. The male wood figure is 22 7/8 inches high and the female figure is 17 11/16 inches high and both come from a private collection. Somewhat eroded, these figures are remarkably graceful and have quite lyrical and almost Oriental poses. These world-class figures are exquisite.

Commemorative couple, Sakalava peoples

Commemorative couple, Sakalava peoples, Madagascar, 19th-20th Century, wood, male figure is 70 7/8 inches high, female figure is 61 7/16 inches high, private collection

Another commemorative couple from Madagascar also is eroded, or "weathered," and is of a type that not infrequently appears at major auctions. The couple comes from the Sakalava peoples and like the Vezo peoples couple is simply dated 19th-20th Century but the figures are much larger and their poses are not as animated. The male figure is 70 7/8 inches high and the female is 61 7/16 inches high. These are elegant and stately figures of great but simple charm.

In the fine catalogue that the museum sells for only $14.95, Alisa LaGamma, associate curator in the museum's Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Amerifcs, provides the following commentary about these two "couples":

"Couples are the primary subject of the large-scale monuments created for Vezo burial sites in Madagascar....These include males and females depicted intimately interwined as well as pairs of independent male and female figures. The rituals that accompanied their dedication facilitated the incorporation of the deceased into the ancestral community and assured the flow of vitality from the dead to the living. Throughout Madagascar, a northeast orientation is considered sacred in view of the association of that axis with the rising sun, propitious events, and the relationship it is believed to have with ancestors. As a result, tombs are often situated northeast of settlements. Those funerary sites that relate to Vezo communities on Madagascar's western coast are located in inaccessible forests and sandy clearings distant from villages. Sculptures are positioned at opposite corners of rectangular, box-like wood tomb structures exposed to the elements....The couple seen in plate 31 [the Vezo couple] was designed for this kind of setting and formal interaction. The figures are unique in their animation, in dramatic opposition to the static postures of most Vezo independent figural monuments. Their surfaces and forms exhibit evidence of extensive weathering and abrasion. The elements and forces of nature have played a significant role in shaping their appearance, and their attenuated limbs and blurred features contribute to their ethereal aesthetic. As a result, it is difficult to establish where the boundaries between the sculptor's hand end and the effects of erosion begin. However, their stances are deliberately dynamic, as is underscored by the attitudes of their turned heads, their raised arms, and the hands that once clasped items now missing. Their postures powerfully retain the suggestion that they are responding to each other's movements, making their connection eternally vital. These 'dancing' Vezo figures provide a powerful contrast to the stately couple illustrated in plate 32 [the Sakalave couple]. Created by a Sakalava master to guard the entrance to a royal tomb at Tsianihy, the figures commemorate King Toera, who was killed by the French along with his supporters in 1897....While erosion has softened their features, they remain a solemn, commanding presence. The female, whose body is draped with a simple garment, gracefully balances a vessel on her head; her arms are at her sides, and her proper right hand is now empty. Her male counterpart, who once held a rifle and a lance, wears a skirt that falls just below the knees. These delicate contrasting details are subtle accents that distinguish the otherwise symmetrical depictions. Given that Sakalava commemorative sculptures are generally explicitly sexual in their nudity and depictions of passionate embraces, it is unusual that this couple is clothed and introspective in demeanor. While such works memorialize individuals, they are not conceived of as portraits but rather are reflections upon the concepts of birth and regeneration."

Chamba couple

Couple, Chamba peoples, Nigeria, 19th-20th Century, wood with pigment, 21 inches high, Collection of Drs. Daniel and Marian Malcolm

A Chamba peoples "couple" from Nigeria is a remarkable sculptural composition in which the two figures are joined beneath their knees by a large curved element and each figure only has one leg that penetrates through that element. The wood object has traces of pigment and is 21 inches high. It is dated simply 19th-20th Century and is in the collection of Drs. Daniel and Marian Malcolm.

Ms. LaGamma provides the following commentary:

"Chamba figurative traditions from Nigeria's Benue River valley, although minimally documented, have yielded striking visual statements concerning human duality. The limited contextual information concerning their significance alludes to their placement in sacred groves as part of royal ancestral shrines....In the work illustrated in plate 28 [the Chamba peoples "couple"], a broad horizontal element spans two vertical torsos and serves as their shared lower body, which is supported by a single pair of legs. The upper bodies of the truncated figures lean slightly inward toward one another and are virtually identical except for variations in the designs of the sagittal crests that crown their heads. While, in this example both torsos would appear to be androgynous, in other, related Chamba works in this sculptural genre, male and female genders are explicitly articulated, with the female element identified by breasts and a more pronounced crest. Given this distinction, one may infer that the contrasting coiffures depicted here identify the proper left torso as female and the proper right one a male. Their abbreviated facial features emphasize open, squared mouths and ears that project outward. The synergy of the upper bodies - framed by the arms held at their sides and by the bent elbows terminating in triangular hands - creates a singular vitality. On one level this design may reflect basic Chamba assumptions concerning human existence that combine male and female aspects, but it also comments upon the interdependence of the living and the ancestral aspects of human experience."

Seated couple, Djenne Civilization

Seated couple, Djenne Civilization, Mali, 12th-16th Century, terracotta, 11 3/8 inches high, Collection of Drs. Daniel and Marian Malcolm

Ms. LaGamma provides considerable background about the "couple" in Sudanic artistic traditions:

"It has been suggested that the emphasis on both the unity and separation of the male and female in African thought is especially intense in Sudanic sculptural traditions....In surveys that consider the vast and richly diverse artistic heritage of sub-Saharan Africa, art historians have identified regional traditions that encompass vast geographic territories. Classifications such as 'Sudanic' suggest an overarching culture and artistic legacy shared by many distinct ethnic groups....Among those sub-groups included within the area of Sudanic style are the Dogon, Bamana, Senufo, Lobi and Baga. In physical terms, the Western Sudan is a landscape of desert, grassland, and wooded savanna that extends from Senegal through Chad. Delimited to the north and south by the Sahara and the Atlantic Coast, at its heart is the great arc of the Niger Rier. As early as the first millennium B.C., the inhabitants of the Western Sudan were engaged in both farming andi ronworking tehnologies. Over time, they participated in the formation of three important pre-colonial kingdoms - Ghaha (from about the eighth to th eeleventh century), Mali (from about the thirteenth to the sixteenth century), and Sonhai (from about the fifteenth to the seventeeth century) - that prospered through trans-Saharan tradd. Commercial networks exchanged salt and brass for gold, ivory, kola nuts, and slaves, and, by the tenth century, facilitated the spread of Islam from North Africa across the Sahara to the Akan forest region in present day Ghana. Among the earliest forms of artistic expression in the Western Sudan are depictions of couples in terracotta and cast copper alloy, from Mali's Inland Niger Delta. These works ahve been related to the ancient urban fcnter of Djenne-Jeno three kilometers soutwest of the contemporary city of Djenne. Archaeologists have determined that the site was settled about 250 B.C., and that it was continuously ocupied by an ethnically diverse population for over a millennium before its abandonment about A.D. 500....Djenne-Jeno's fine local pottery was being traded upriver and there is evidence that early sculpture was manufactured. Copper and salt brought by Saharan traders were exchanged for the region's abundant fish and agricultural resources....Islam's penetration of the region around A.D. 1000 coincides with the producton of figurative terracottas at Djenne-Jeno, which some have proposed may have been a direct response to an assault on indigenous belief systems.....It has been suggested that Djenne-Jeno's decline may be related to the arrival of Islam, and that a new urban settlement purged of traditional religious practices was established at Djenne once the community's leadership converted to the new faith....The corpus of figurative terracottas associated with Djenne-Jeno's civilization is immensely diversified iconographically. In addition to a group of armed foot soldiers and horsemen, there are representations of individual men and women attired simply in girdles, anklets, and bracelets, in attitudes suggestive of prayer or supplication. Some of the subjets addressed are figurative pairs that suggest relationships of intimate companionship. To date, approximately thirty-six terracotta sculptures as well as fragmentary remains of artifacts and reliefs have been found as part of controlled excavations in the vicinity of Djenne-Jeno..., among them a pair of male and female figures discovered positioned next to the foundation of a house at a site northwest of Djenne....Excavated from under what appears to have been the floor the figures, both missing their heads, are shown kneeling with their hands placed on their knees, their bodies covered with raised dots of clay. This dramatic surface treatment is apparent on other related ancient terracottas from the region...While it is difficult to arrive at any conclusions based on such a limited contextual record, it is intriguing consider that in more than one instance representations of couples were interred near the entrances to domestic compounds. Within the large corpus of known Djenne terracottas, figural pairings are a recurrent theme....In addition to representations of male and female figural pairs, ancient Djenne's artists also depicted pairs of figures of the same gender, as in the pair of male figures that kneel side by side, with interlaced arms, seen in plate 2 [Djenne couple]."

Couple, pendant, Djenne Civilization

Couple, pendant, Djenne Civilization, Mali, 15th Century, brass, 2 9/16 inches high, Collection of Jeffrey B. Soref

"This is evident in works in brass, such as the minature in plate 3 [the Djenne brass couple], which is closely related stylistically to the terracottas: the two virtually identical bearded male figures wear their hair in a distinctive topknot. They are seated side by side, their hands resting on bent knees. A wavy serpentine vertical motif is emblazoned along the length of each of the torsos, terminating in a prominent navel....The intimate scale of this work suggest that it served as a personal pendant and may have had amuletic properties."

Primordial couple, Dogon peoples

Primordial couple, Dogon peoples, Mali, 16th-19th Century, wood and metal, 28 3/4 inches high, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Lester Wunderman, 1977

In his introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition, Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, noted that "Masaccio's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence ranks among the most searching portrayals of the archetypal couple in Western art. In that searing and timeless visual commentary, Adam and Eve are depicted at the moment when they are forced to become self sufficient, newly united in their shared suffering and responsibilities. The iconic African work that introduces this exhibition is also remarkable for its universally comprehensible commentary: The concise visual vocabulary of the Dogon Primordial Couple, one of the most beloved works in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's permanent collection, provides an excellent statement concerning the unity of man and woman as an elemental social unit. Together with the exceptional works included here, which address comparable subject matter from a range of different cultural perspectives, it attests to the rich diversity of artistic traditions that have flourished in Africa."

 

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