A new exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is showcasing acclaimed sculptural masterpieces from Africa's equatorial rainforest. The exhibit, called "Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary," sheds light on the history and traditions of the region. As Victoria Cavaliere reports from VOA's New York Bureau, the collection also explores how the works influenced 20th century modern art.
The more than 150 artifacts that make up the exhibit are on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from some of the most distinguished museums and private collections in Europe and the United States.
The sculptures date back to the 18th and 19th century and depict 12 traditions from Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The artifacts are considered the earliest still-surviving art from the region and were collected by missionaries and artists during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The exhibit's curator, Alisa LaGamma, says the sculptures were created to honor ancestors as vital intermediaries with the divine. Organized thematically, the show is an effort to understand the history and culture of their creators. "What we have tried to do is delve into the meaning and the significance of these works and their cultures of origin. Now we have an opportunity to understand what their significance was in the lives of the people who created them," she said.
The Met's exhibition is organized like a geographical tour of Central Africa. The journey begins with copper, brass and wood relics of the Fang people from Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Artifacts from Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo are made of textiles, fibers, glass and clay.
To highlight the importance of sacred and ancestral art through out the ages, some of the African pieces are being shown alongside Christian sculptures from the Middle Ages.
"We developed a very special, sacred conversation between specific masterpieces of Fang sculpture from southern Cameroon and Gabon and their counterparts from the Middle Ages and Europe. It is really quite a moving juxtaposition to see these great traditions speaking to one another," LaGamma said.
Many of the works on view inspired early 20th Century western artists including Pablo Picasso, Andre Derain, and Henri Matisse.
One of the highlights of the exhibit is the so-called "Black Venus," a delicate, 19th century wood sculpture from Gabon that is on loan from a Paris museum. The Black Venus is seated, her eyes are closed, and her surface is jet black.
LaGamma explains the sculpture was first shown in Paris in the early 20th century. "She really created a furor by artists in the day. They were so excited by this new cannon of beauty, and Picasso came to the conclusion that she surpassed the Venus de Milo in terms of her beauty," she said.
The exhibition, which runs through March, is expected to be popular with both New Yorkers and tourists. Interest in and prices of African art are increasing. In addition to the special exhibit, the Metropolitan Museum has a large wing dedicated to its own African art collection.