Representations of the Dead in African Art

I attended a gallery tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this weekend entitled “Representations of the Dead in Aftrican Art – Repositories of Memory”.  The tour was led by Gayle Rodda Kurtz  (who I Googled and learned is a Professor of Art History at Pratt).  Professor Kurtz (who has the most ironic name ever for an expert in African art) showed us some beautiful sculptures of African decedents that were created in different parts of the continent. None of the art we saw was contemporary  – we viewed sculptures from the 18th-early 20th century that were used in different sorts of rituals for various purposes.

The figure above is a Boyo Ancestor Figure from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (I really loved that it was Professor Kurtz who was showing us art from what used to be the Congo Free State – if you haven’t read Heart of Darkness, you must).  It is a sculpture of a grandson of a chief, who was himself an important person in his clan.  You can tell he was important from his very fancy braids and bracelets.  The leader of the clan held onto the the statutes of the elders of the clan and would bring the statutes out on important occasions.  It was a way of remembering the elders. According to the Professor, once the clan forgot who an elder was, that elder’s statue would be brought into the forest and buried.  The statues weren’t considered “artwork” in the modern sense of the word – they were spiritual items used in ceremonies.  Here’s the back view of this figure

Isn’t his spine awesome?

Elders in traditional African cultures were venerated for their knowledge and wisdom.  Here is a seriously cool three-headed male figure also from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

This figure was brought out during initiation ceremonies (for boys when they reached puberty).  The marks on his torso are secret coded information that was revealed  during initiation ceremonies.  Check out the cool carving!

The knowledge embedded in the carvings had to do with “mystical forces” and gaining the protection of deceased ancestors.

Here are his other two heads.

Below is a throne for a King of the Luba people, who also lived in present day Democratic Republic of the Congo.  According to the Professor, the throne is fashioned as a woman because a woman was considered the perfect vessel for the King’s spirit after he died.  At death, the King’s spirit would become part of the female in the throne.

The next piece is one of the most important of the Met’s collection, according to the Professor Kurtz.  It is a Fang Reliquary Head from what is now Gabon.

This sculpture is considered really important because it inspired many European “Modernist” artists in the early 20th century. This sculpture and some of the others are very shiny because they have been covered with palm oil during ceremonies.  This head and other reliquary heads were thought, in a sense, to be the spirits of the ancestors and the oil was used to strengthen contact with them.  The reliquary heads were placed on top of bark containers that held the skulls of ancestors (not their whole bodies, just their skulls).   According to Professor Kurtz, the members of the clan knew who each skull had been.  When boys (at approximately 13 years old) were initiated, they would be introduced to the skulls of their ancestors.  At night, they would sleep next to the skulls and in the morning they would be questioned on what they had learned from their ancestors during the night.  And you think your homework is stressful!

The woman above is another really awesome, really beautiful Fang reliquary statute.  It is so cool that she is a woman – women elders were venerated too – not just the men! Check out the back of her below.

Below is a photograph of several of the bark containers that held skulls of ancestors.

The next few works of art are from Benin and they are older than all the above works (18th/19th century) because they are made of brass (the more recent are made of wood, which disintegrates faster).  The brass heads represent the kings of Benin.  The heads each have a hole in the top where a heavily carved elephant tusk was inserted.  According to Professor Kurtz, when a king died, an altar to him was created and his head was sculpted using the lost wax method.

The heads were not intended to actually resemble the dead king, and over the years, the identity of each head has been lost.    The necklaces they are wearing were made of coral.  The king was considered the ruler of the sea and only the king could wear an entire outfit made of coral.

This last sculpture  was made by the Fon people of Benin and the story behind this figure (called a Bocio) is sad.  According to the Professor, this Bocio (meaning live body or cadaver) was meant to fool slave traders.  Well-off people would hire artisans to make them a Bocio.  They would stand these sculptures outside their houses in the hopes that slave traders would pass by their houses because there were dead inside.  There is a dog’s skull on the top of this sculpture and a snake’s skeleton around his neck.

I hope these photos have whet your interest in going to one of the world’s best museums to see these sculptures (and many, many more) in person.  My poor photography skills do not do them justice.  If you are interested in African Art, did you know that we have several courses in it right here at City Tech?  I hope to audit a class next semester myself – perhaps you will join me?

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1 Response to “Representations of the Dead in African Art”



  1. 1 Mangaaka, The Force of LAW « The Dearly Departed Trackback on October 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm

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