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Exhibition objects

African, Oceanic, and Ancient American Art

Recent Acquisitions

May 22–October 28, 2001

On view is a selection of works added to the collection of the Museum's Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas over the past five years. Varied in date, place, material, and function, the objects range from a group of Christian crosses made of brass from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century by the Kongo peoples of Angola/Democratic Republic of Congo, to personal ornaments of gold, shell, and seeds from Island Southeast Asia, to ceramic works made by the Maya peoples of Mexico/Guatemala more than a thousand years ago.

A growing appreciation of African artistry in a broader range of media and a new understanding of the continent's complex history have led to the acquisition of a series of Christian works from Ethiopia and the Kingdom of Kongo that challenge old assumptions about Africa's cultural isolation before the nineteenth century. Dating from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, the crucifixes and icons show Africa's long engagement with Christianity and document the convergence of two distinctive worldviews.

Acquisitions such as the lovely Mukudj mask from Gabon fill important gaps in the collection. Carved by a Punu sculptor in the nineteenth century, it is an idealized portrait celebrating the beauty of an individual woman. Another sculpture from Tomman Island in Vanuatu, is a striking ancestor figure of twentieth-century date that, standing nearly seven feet tall, was made to house the spirit of a high-ranking chief. It is painted with bold body designs and masklike faces depicting powerful spirits. Also new to the collection is a Maya spouted vessel, carved of stone about two thousand years ago in southwestern Mexico or adjacent Guatemala; it carries a hieroglyphic inscription with its own dedication, and complex, low relief images of deities around its bowl.

The silk weaving traditions of Madagascar—now enjoying a contemporary revival—are represented by a splendid mantle woven just three years ago using designs and weaving techniques dating to the nineteenth century and combining African and Southeast Asian influences. The Oceanic collection has added diverse works from Melanesia and Island Southeast Asia, such as a monumental ceremonial textile with finely woven images of crocodiles from the Iban people of Borneo. The textiles were created by female master weavers for use in all aspects of ritual life. Rarely seen examples of jewelry and other personal adornments on view include a finely crafted necklace and earrings of hammered gold from Nias Island off the coast of Sumatra. The property of nobility, the ornaments were so closely associated with their owners that some could serve as stand-ins at important events when the owners could not be present.

The exhibition also includes an appealing assortment of Island Southeast Asian hats, ranging from formal items such as a mushroom-shaped woman's ceremonial hat from Borneo made from colorful trade beads, to practical forms such as a finely polished wooden hunter's helmet from the northern Philippines, which could be inverted to serve as a bowl when needed.

Terracotta vessels from Côte d'Ivoire demonstrate both the talents of female artists that made them and the well-designed utility of their form. The ancient American additions include a variety of ceramic examples. Small masks from the late second millennium B.C. site of Tlatilco in the Valley of Mexico, are similar in size but have differing facial features ranging from the contorted to the blandly open. A pair of male and female Chinesco figures from Nayarit in the west of Mexico are decorously seated, the female holding a large bowl that may refer to the role of nurturer. From the Maya area of Mexico/Guatemala are two bowls with lordly imagery, dating from the sixth and eighth centuries. Further, a Maya ceramic censer is actually a sculpture in the form of a seated figure with a large headdress. It would have been used to contain smoking copal incense for sacred occasions.

Also on view are works added to the department's Photograph Study Collection. One is a rare view of the city of Antsahatsiroa in the mid-1860s taken by Rev. William Ellis, a member of the London Missionary Society, who was one of the very earliest photographers to work in Madagascar. A group of studio portraits, dating to the first half of the twentieth century by a yet-to-be-identified African photographer in what is thought to be Côte d'Ivoire, has an appealing unity of style. Another is a colorful group of six Zulu portraits that date between 1961 and 1970, taken by South African photographer Sukdeo Bobson Mohanlall of Bobson Studio in Durban.