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Art and Power

The exhibition of sub-Saharan African art explores the political dimensions of power figures
July 18, 2017
Appears in February 2009
Male figure (nkishi). Songye, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood, horn, brass, iron, glass beads, cowrie shell, leopard teeth, gourd, reptile skin, fiber; h. 66 cm. National 
Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 86-4-1. Pho

Constantine Petridis Curator of African Art

When Art and Power in the Central African Savanna opens its doors to the general public on March 1, nearly 15 years will have passed since the Cleveland Museum of Art last presented a temporary exhibition on the rich artistic legacy of sub-Saharan Africa. Art and Power will bring together 59 works borrowed from 28 private and public lenders in the United States and Belgium. 

The idea for the exhibition stems from my doctoral dissertation on the arts of the Luluwa people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which I defended more than a decade ago at Ghent University in Belgium. Although I originally considered organizing an exhibition on Luluwa art—something which has not been done to date—I soon decided to transcend the monographic approach and look for commonalities between neighboring and related cultures. 

Female figure (bwanga bwa cibola). Luluwa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood; h. 45 cm. Felix Collection, Belgium. Photo: © Dick Beaulieux, Brussels

Specifically, Art and Power addresses the shared concepts and beliefs that lie behind visually distinct expressions of the Luluwa, Luba, Chokwe, and Songye, who live in a vast region in the heart of Central Africa. 

Aside from the many cultural and historical ties among these four peoples, they all have produced various types of carving that can be labeled “power figures,” a neologism that replaces the once commonly used but highly pejorative and basically erroneous “fetishes.” The term typically refers to a figurative container or receptacle for substances of plant, animal, human, and mineral origin believed to provide protection, healing, and, sometimes, harm.

Because they serve as conduits between the natural world of humans and the supernatural world of spirits, such figures are generally classified as “religious.” However, the main purpose of the exhibition and its companion publication is to illuminate the political dimensions of some of the most impressive examples of such power figures, characterized by their larger size, refined finish, and detailed rendering of anatomy and decoration. A secondary aspiration is to demonstrate that this special type of power figure developed at a time of political and social centralization and the emergence of an elite group of high-ranking officials in the 19th century. Even if it remains impossible to prove scientifically this alleged artistic transformation, the exhibition and publication thus attempt to counter the popular perception of African art as an art without history.

Male mask (cihongo). Chokwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo or Angola. Wood, wickerwork, beads, shells, metal, feathers, fiber; h. 24 cm. Private collection. Photo: © Hughes Dubois, Paris/Brussels

Of the four traditions represented in the exhibition the large male figures of the Songye, generally the collective property of a village and serving community needs, are undoubtedly the ones most commonly associated with the concept of the power object. However, the exhibition also includes a number of small power objects, both figurative and non-figurative, that belong to the broad category of protective or luck-bringing devices—usually labeled “amulets” and worn on the body or stored in the home. The Cleveland Luba half figure with a heavily crusted surface illustrated here may in fact represent one of the non-royal Luba styles overlooked or ignored by scholars and collectors alike. The male Chokwe mask, along with a female one included in the exhibition, expands the notion of the power object in that it may have functioned both as a dance mask and as a kind of altar. These two Chokwe masks and the 57 other works united in Art and Power reveal the multiplicity of meaning that is characteristic of much of sub-Saharan Africa’s arts. 

Male mask (cihongo). Chokwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo or Angola. Wood, wickerwork, beads, shells, metal, feathers, fiber; h. 24 cm. Private collection. Photo: © Hughes Dubois, Paris/Brussels