Empowerment in figures

A new exhibit of West and Central African art expresses male-female cooperation, morality and political authority

Although the exhibit Protection and Social Harmony in the Art of West and Central Africa has little symmetry, the individual pieces are worth viewing.
Although the exhibit Protection and Social Harmony in the Art of West and Central Africa has little symmetry, the individual pieces are worth viewing.
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A new exhibit on campus puts truth behind the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

The collective sculptures and masks leave a strong first impression, especially to someone new to African art.

The African Gallery, a narrow blue room in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC), houses the exhibit, titled Protection and Social Harmony in the Art of West and Central Africa.

Donated to the AEAC by Justin and Elisabeth Lang in 1984, the exhibit’s wooden sculptures and masks are a small sample of the diverse styles of West and Central Africa.

Each figure in the exhibit plays a role in African life and traditions. They’re believed to summon protective forces and contribute to the maintenance of social cohesion.

Together, the pre-modern figures are intimidating with their closed eyes, a carefully crafted effect of scarification. It’s initially difficult to see where the themes of protection and social harmony come into play.

With an art form so culturally-oriented, it’s crucial to understand the context behind the pieces before they can be fully appreciated.

Conversely, art is subjective and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so I found one sculpture especially beautiful and fascinating.

Staff with Male and Female Couple is a 20th century brass sculpture from the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria. A male and female couple joined at their hats by a chain, it symbolizes the “founding couple of a community, the power of the Ogboni society and the need for male-female cooperation.”

The Ogboni society is comprised of male and female elders possessed of great moral and political authority.

This sculpture was one of a mesmerizing collection.

Regrettably, the gallery and exhibition don’t give full justice to the African art exhibited. The gallery is small and the three-dimensional sculptures and masks feel crowded.

There also seems to be no particular order to the exhibition and there’s little to no semblance of narrative, geographical or thematic order.

Most striking is the positive portrayal of women as a source of life, nourishment and social good in their roles as mother, wife, daughter and simply woman. Their images command respect.

As an exhibit, the collection had very little symmetry; however, the individual elements make it worthwhile.

Protection and Social Harmony in the Art of West and Central Africa will be on at the AEAC until June 14, 2015

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