African art's focus on duality explored

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  May 30, 2004 at 3:05 PM
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NEW YORK, May 30 (UPI) -- Seeing double is the theme of a new exhibit of African art at the Metropolitan Museum that includes sculptures of couples created by 30 regional cultures to celebrate partnership, procreation and power through imagery of surpassing beauty rarely if ever before displayed together.

If there is one show in New York that packs an original visual punch, "Echoing Images: Couples in African Sculpture," is it. Selected from public and private collections in the New York area, the 60 works in wood, brass, ivory, terracotta and beadwork dating back to the 12th century are notable for their dynamism despite their fairly rigid, straightforward character.

Exhibited two by two in a small gallery enclosure in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, the overall effect is one of dignity derived from an almost childlike approach to the most sophisticated human relationships between men and women. That some of these figures were sacred and were thought to have magical powers should not seem far-fetched to any sensitive viewer.

The centerpiece of the show is "Primordial Couple" from the Western Sudan, a freestanding wood sculpture of a male and female created by an anonymous Dogon tribal master of the 16th century, one of the most treasured works in the Metropolitan's own African collection. In a sedate depiction of intimacy, the male has one arm draped over the female's shoulder, not unlike a favorite pose for tomb figures of couples found in ancient Egypt.

"Primordial Couple" suggest an integrated and harmonious union of the sexes through the parallel vertical lines of the two figures traversed by horizontals, such as the man's arm and the bench seat, that draw them together. A small child clings to the back of the female, a quiver for arrows slung over his shoulder.

The nobility of this complex work suggests that it was sculpted to honor a Dogon elder through its elegant expression of pairing as an elemental unit of life, a concept common to most of the world's cultures but rarely so beautifully expressed.

Simpler in concept but equally powerful are two separate but matching larger-than-life standing figures in reddish wood carved as guardians for the tomb of a Madagascar king killed by the French in 1897. The female has a vessel balanced on her head, and the male strokes his chin thoughtfully with his right hand. Both are elegantly coiffed with outsized curls.

They are said to represent regeneration, a life force that is celebrated by other couples depicted in the show in much less subtle sexual terms. An embracing couple in terracotta from the Djenne civilization in Mali in the 16th century is certainly meant to suggest sexual concourse, which African artists depicted between male and female and sometimes between persons of the same sex.

Occasionally the influence of colonizing Europeans can be seen in the sculptures. A royal couple finely fashioned out of ivory by a Lagoons artist of the Ivory Coast in the 18th century shows the male wearing a European top hat and the female shielding herself from the sun with a European umbrella. The couple is seated on a throne and carry staffs used by officials at public gatherings.

A large sculpture of a seated royal couple of the Bamileke people in the Cameroons, their throne supported by a dog-size leopard, is completely covered with colored glass beads and cowry shells. The king holds out a drinking horn to the queen, who serves him wine from a calabash gourd. It was made for ceremonial exhibition on the occasion of state visits.

Cast brass figures wrought by the Yoruba people of Nigeria depict male and female figures seated on the heads of lower figures. They are joined at the summit of the sculpture by a chain signifying transcendence over divisions and oppositions to attain an enlightened state. The figures are thought to have been used as ritual insignia.

Other figures are coupled on a carved wooden granary door, on support posts for a building, on wands brandished by performers in dance ceremonies, on the handle of a ceremonial flywhisk, and on a double terracotta vessel whose spouts are formed by female heads facing each other, lips almost touching in a kiss. The vessel was used in the early 20th century for ritual drinking of hallucinogenic beverages in order to foresee coming events and ensure the welfare of the tribe.

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