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Special Exhibition: Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

Podcast date: November 21, 2011
Angélique Kidjo, Grammy Award–winning performer and cultural ambassador, and Alisa LaGamma, curator of the exhibition Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures, discuss leadership, legacy, and the role of women in African society.

Alisa LaGamma: Hello. I'm Alisa LaGamma, curator of the exhibition Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures. I'm also curator in the Metropolitan Museum's Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. I'm here in the exhibition galleries with Angélique Kidjo, the renowned singer from Benin. She is a Grammy Award–winner and a cultural ambassador for Africa throughout the world. She is performing a concert here in conjunction with the exhibition. Thank you for joining me, Angélique.

Angélique Kidjo: You're welcome.

Alisa LaGamma: Angélique, you've been such an important ambassador for the needs of women and children across the continent. You've pushed for education for young girls; you've been involved in so many nurturing causes that you have brought attention to. And one of the things that I find very moving in the exhibition is the very quiet but very strong presence of female leaders among the works in the exhibition that reflect that tradition of women being really at the foundation of  sustaining all kinds of needs in African communities.

Angélique Kidjo: Yeah, it is. The leaders in Africa during those times that have achieved success in the long term—that people are still celebrating today—are the ones that acknowledge the women, the mothers, the wives, and the sisters—that understood that it's not a competition. It's a partnership, a lifetime partnership. That if you have a woman that have a knowledge that you can use to empower your people, the sex of the person becomes secondary.

Alisa LaGamma: One of the things that I find very interesting in studying these sculptures in the exhibition is that, in some cases, as in the work that you see when you first walk in, we know the name of the woman; we know the fact that she was the mother of a king who ruled in the sixteenth century. But a lot of the other works in the exhibition, we don't have that information. And the only clue we have that this person lived and led an exemplary life is the fact that a work of art was created to honor them. And so I find it very moving—people whose identities were lost to history because information was not transferred can be brought to our consciousness through the inspiration that they provided artists of another time.

Angélique Kidjo: Not only to you but to me too. I grew up in Benin, and most of the history of my country is not written. I was lucky enough to grow up with my grandmother that tell me the stories. But it's going to be completely abstract if I don't have a mask or a piece of art that tells me my own history. So for me, that's why it is so powerful. We have information and names of some of them. Some of them we don't. But they stand; those pieces of art stand by themselves and tell you the story without you even knowing. And what is interesting is the fact that you can make your own history out of them. You can place them within the time and imagine what the life was like.

Alisa LaGamma: It requires imagination.

Angélique Kidjo: Absolutely. You gotta use your imagination. You gotta use your inner peace and strength to say "How can I really see myself in this? How can this tell me a story, a piece of the story of myself?" And if those artists were not there, we would not have those pieces. And it is amazing as I go along, walking, looking at them, some of them seem so familiar, some face seems familiar to me that resembles some people from my family that live far away. That's what I like about it. It speaks for the time. It speaks for its people. And the same thing happens with music.

Alisa LaGamma: Most of the opportunities to see these works in Africa historically—music played an important role. Music and dance and reciting oral histories, they were not experienced in silence. Music brought them to life.

Angélique Kidjo: Absolutely. When I was growing up, there were songs that were talking about people that died way before I was born. And by listening to the song, I can see myself in there.

Alisa LaGamma: This great masterpiece of Cameroon sculpture, that is a focal point of Heroic Africans, is on loan to us from a French museum, the Musée Dapper in Paris.

Angélique Kidjo: The Bamileke one.

Alisa LaGamma: The Bamileke is a dancing performer. It's the first time she's traveled to New York in about a generation. And it's very exciting to see a work of sculpture celebrating a woman who lived several hundred years ago but that is such a dynamic, enduring tribute to her vitality. It's a very exciting work to confront, and I see it's a very meaningful work for you as a performer.

Angélique Kidjo: It is. It is, not only because of the dance but it's also the expression of the face. The Bamileke tribe has always been a tribe that refused to be looked down upon. And they always stand up for themselves. The women and the men equally. She's a priest and she's a free spirit. She's an image of African women that we don't often talk about and often see, and they do exist in Africans of today. They're independent African women in a sometime patriarchal society that set the ground very high for themselves to keep their independence, to keep their respect. And the attitude of the Bamileke priestess is: "Here I am. And I'm vibrant, I'm a woman, I'm celebrating life, and I'm doing what I know how to do and what I'm here to do, even if you don't want it." And that is something that we don't see often talked about, about African women. And they do exist.

Alisa LaGamma: So the artist was really successful. He was trying to extend the life of this living, breathing person beyond her immediate lifetime. And he achieved what he set out to do. Even hundreds of years later, we get the sense of her as an individual and as a living presence.

Angélique Kidjo: Absolutely. That's what the sculpture does in our culture. Because of the oral society that we live in, what tells the story beyond the oral culture is these statues. We're talking about them centuries after. I grew up in a sculpture and statue country. Because it's everywhere. Every god and goddesses has a statue. And it tell the story. One thing that I try to do with my music is also to tell the story, because the music and the storyteller in Africa are the ones that taught me the story of my people, the story of my country. And what helped me understand them deeply and better is also that I can relate to a statue. When I go back to something, I say, "This statue tells this story. This statue brings me to understand who I am." I'm happy that people have the opportunity to see the importance of women in arts and in the society, in the economy of our continent. And the thing that is really important for all of us here in the twenty-first century, as we are sitting down here talking, is that those women have paved the way for the feminists that exist after. To be in a museum today, where we can tell the story, where anyone—doesn't matter what language you speak—can identify too. And that is something for me that is so important. It is not only in African arts. We are all one humanity. And we go through the same problem in different parts of the world. How do we leave a legacy to the next generation to carry on?

Alisa LaGamma: Heroic Africans will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from September 21, 2011, through January 29, 2012.

The exhibition is made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Foundation Inc., and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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