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Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

September 21, 2011–January 29, 2012

Enshrining Greatness: The Kingdom of Benin and Beyond

Life is short, art endures.

—Hippocrates (460–400 B.C.E.), Aphorisms, Sect. I, I

Artists throughout history have risen to the challenge of portraying notable persons through sculptural creations that would outlive their ephemeral subjects. Although the fame of an individual may be lost through the vicissitudes of history, such artistic tributes were conceived as enduring monuments to his or her life. The first section of Heroic Africans notes that this was the impetus for the creation of a selection of works from the Metropolitan's permanent collection. Those that commemorate several generations of the Kingdom of Benin's leadership—including Idia, mother to Oba Esigie (r. early 16th century), Oba Akenzua I (r. ca. 1715–35), and the Ezomo Ehenua—are positioned in dialogue with comparative ones from ancient Egypt and Rome to consider how artists from different traditions developed their own visual idioms for capturing lasting impressions of remarkable individuals. Faced with the loss of a revered life, a commemorative work may in some measure redress the enormity of the resulting absence with a tangible and lasting presence. The very physicality of sculptural representations ideally allows them to serve not merely as evocations of a given human subject but as surrogates.

Selected Artworks