Art and Power in the Central African Savanna

San Francisco, March 2009—The de Young Museum presents Art and Power in the Central African Savanna, June 20 to October 11, 2009. This exhibition explores the political and religious power of nearly 60 sculptures created by artists of four Central African cultures: the Luba, Songye, Chokwe, and Luluwa. Carved primarily from wood, these power figures act as containers for magical organic ingredients and serve both religious and political purposes. According to traditional beliefs, the figures mediate between the human and spirit worlds to insure a healthy birth, successful hunt, or triumph over an enemy. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco director John Buchanan says, “This exhibition contains an extraordinary selection of rare works that will resonate dramatically with modern and contemporary tastes. Additionally, it highlights the Museums’ renewed interest in art from Africa.”

Art and Power also examines the artistic traditions of the heart of Africa within the context of historical change, thus countering the commonly held perception of African art as an art without history. Exhibition curator Constantine Petridis, from the Cleveland Museum of Art, suggests that among the four cultures represented, a special form of power figure characterized by large size, refined finish, and detailed rendering of anatomy and decoration developed at a time of political and social structure, and the emergence of an elite group of high-ranking titleholders. Presenting curator Kathleen Berrin adds, “In their original settings many of the figural sculptures exhibited here fulfilled religious and political functions simultaneously, possessing the ability to cure and protect, while at the same time signaling rank, wealth, and status.” Exhibition highlights include:

  • An extraordinary bowl bearer of the Luba people, consisting of a dynamic arrangement of humans and animals. Used as oracles by diviners working in the service of kings, bowl bearers’ powers included protection and healing of the village as a whole.
  • A large Songye figure of a male whose body is bedecked with paraphernalia, including containers filled with magical substances like horns and miniature carvings. The size and sophistication of this figure indicate that it was the collective property of the village and served community needs.
  • A majestic Chokwe male figure owned by the “lord of the land,” the highest political rank in Chokwe society. The sculpture most likely held a tall metal spear in the tubular container on its head, and may have been intended to safeguard the chief’s power and authority.
  • A splendid Luluwa figure that represents a special form of female political power, and played a role in fostering a young woman’s fertility and the beauty and health of her children.

Although the four artistic traditions explored in Art and Power have each been the subject of in-depth monographic studies, this is the first exhibition to focus on the shared concepts and ideas between four visually distinct cultures. This is the exhibition’s third and final presentation before being disbanded and returned to major lending institutions and private collections in Europe and the United States.

Art and Power in the Central African Savanna is organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art. The San Francisco presentation is made possible by James and Patricia Ludwig, Bob Wall and Margaret Rinkevich, Lauren T. T. Hall and David Hearth, and Charles and Diane Frankel. The organizing curator of the exhibition is Constantine Petridis, Ph.D., curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The presenting curator at the de Young is Kathleen Berrin, curator of African art and art of the Americas. The de Young is the final venue for Art and Power. Previously, the exhibition was at The Menil Collection in Houston September 26, 2008–January 4, 2009, and at the Cleveland Museum of Art March 1–May 31, 2009. A fully illustrated catalogue by Petridis accompanies the exhibition and is available in the Museum Store.

de Young Visitor Information
The de Young, designed by Herzog & de Meuron and located in Golden Gate Park, showcases American art from the 17th through the 21st centuries, international contemporary art, textiles, and costumes, and art from the Americas, the Pacific, and Africa.

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