For more than three decades, the two-foot-high, mottled wooden sculpture of a female figure sitting with her baby across her lap, by a Mbembe artist in Cross River State, southeastern Nigeria, has been part of the collection of the Smithsonianâ€™s National Museum of African Art, â€œcelebrated as one of our greatest works from that side of Nigeria,â€ officials said.
But it wasnâ€™t until the opening of the new presentation of the permanent collection, â€œVisionary: Viewpoints on Africaâ€™s Artsâ€ that itâ€™s been reunited in the museum with its long-lost probable mate. The new acquisition, on view at the museum for the first time, of a male figure in a top hat and a gun is of the same height and style as the female, with similar inlaid oval eyes and pursed lips.
Together, the two weathered wooden figures, thought to be from the late 19th century to early 20th century, likely sat at either end of a massive slit gong, an instrument that served as kind of a tribal signalâ€”sounded to call the Mbembe community together in case of fire, deaths, military attacks and other important events.
Their reunion in the new show is not necessarily a romantic oneâ€”the two sit in the museum as they probably did on the slit gong, with their backs to one another, as if cooling their heels following a domestic squabble. But for the museum, itâ€™s worth celebrating having both figures together again, though 5,000 miles and an ocean away from their original home in Cross River State.
National Museum of African Art curator Kevin Dumouchelle says the museum wasnâ€™t even sure that there was a missing half until the female sculpture was sent to New Yorkâ€™s Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years back and placed next to another that looked awfully familiar.
When it was paired with the male in the 2014 Met exhibition of Mbembe art, â€œIt appeared at the time it might have been from the same time period,â€ Dumouchelle says. â€œBut when we saw them together, it was clear these works likely were from the same slit gong.â€
The existence of the male portion was not known because â€œit was in a private collection in Germany and really had not been widely published,â€ Dumouchelle says. â€œBut the dealer who had sold them initially worked with the curator at the Metropolitan to build the collection, so she knew where it was.â€
Accordingly, he says, â€œWe were quite fortunate at that time to have a wonderful donor who acquired the male work from the collection from which it had been exhibited at that time and give it to us as a gift the following year, with the aim of being able to reunite this pair together.â€
Unveiling the pair as part of the â€œVisionaryâ€ exhibition, Dumouchelle says, â€œWe were quite pleased to show this reunited slit gong couple for the first time in this collection.â€
Both are quite well-worn, because the gong â€œsat out in the open, and it was an object that was used, and as it got worn-down, it was replaced after time,â€ says the curator. â€œPart of the aesthetic appeal for these in the West is because they have this wonderfully worn tactile surface too.â€
And while those in the West may â€œproject our own romantic images on itâ€, Dumouchelle adds, in Nigeria, it was more utilitarian. â€œIn the Mbembe community, once theyâ€™d get worn down, they would get replaced and changed over.â€
So itâ€™s somewhat rare to have the pair of well-used wooden sculptures that are so old.
â€œThis one is probably 19th century,â€ he says. And though â€œit is quite rare for wood sculptures from Nigeria to survive, there are slit gong figures found that have dated from the 16th centuryâ€.
Together they provide a satisfying, if not entirely romantic, climax to the show, several years in the making, which is meant to choose 300 of the best items from the museumâ€™s 12,000 item holdings and present them in several new contexts meant to frame and affect manner in which African art is experienced.
While the museumâ€™s holdings are rich in jewelry, metalwork, painting, ceramics and costume, the signature image for â€œVisionaryâ€ is a recent painting by celebrated British-Ghanian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye of a modern woman looking through binoculars.
Recently the subject of an exhibition at New Yorkâ€™s New Museum, Yiadom-Boakyeâ€™s Womanology 12 may make some visitors think â€œVisionary: Viewpoints on Africaâ€™s Artsâ€ is a contemporary show of paintings.
But Dumouchelle says, â€œBy using that image, we disrupt our visitorsâ€™ expectations of what the National Museum of African Art is about.â€
â€œWe have an incredibly rich collection of masks and figurative sculpture and we love and celebrate those,â€ he says. â€œBut we wanted to catch our visitors off guard and remind them that African art also means thisâ€”painting is very much part of the art world and in the art conversation right now.â€
Yiadom-Boakye is one of more than 30 named artists from 27 African countries in the show. Her image also emphasises the role of women in art from the continentâ€”something also represented in the two newest recipients of the museumâ€™s African Art Awards, given at the annual fundraising dinner last month.
Recipients Ghada Amer and Mary Sibande both also have current works on display in the museumâ€”Ghadaâ€™s work Blue Bra Girls can be seen in the Messanine and Sibandeâ€™s Sophie-Merica is on view in the â€œAfrican Mosaicâ€ exhibition.
When it comes to the rich collection of masks and figures on display, 52 works in the exhibition are from the renowned Tishman collection of African Art. Real estate magnate Paul Tishman and his wife Ruth spent 20 years collecting some of the finest examples of African art for a private collection.
â€œThis is the canon,â€ museum curator Karen E. Melbourne said when walking among the works. â€œWhat youâ€™re seeing are some of the single most famous works of African art in existence.â€
The Tishmansâ€™ desire to share the collection with others led to the sale in 1984 to the Walt Disney Company, which wanted to display its riches as part of a planned African pavilion at EPCOT. â€œThankfully, for many reasons, that didnâ€™t come about,â€ Dumouchelle says. â€œThe idea of representing a whole continent in a pavilion in a theme park is really problematic.â€
Instead, Disney lent the works to various exhibitions instead and in 2005 donated the 525-object collection to the National Museum of Art. About a tenth of it is in â€œVisionaryâ€, including many that have previously not been exhibited.
â€¢ Culled from Smithsonian Magazine