The chief raison d’ètre for The African Origin of Civilization, the Metropolitan Museum’s homage to “cultural diversity” (as its wall text terms it), is that it provides display space for some of the museum’s outstanding works of African art that have been displaced by the Rockefeller Wing’s temporary status (until 2024) as a construction zone. Opening in conjunction with the launch of a sweeping renovation of the museum’s massive space for Sub-Saharan African Art, Ancient American Art, and Oceanic Art, this compact temporary installation from the permanent collection (relocated to the opposite end of the museum) consists of “21 pairings of works from different African cultures and eras,” as described in the Met’s announcement.
The entrance to this dossier exhibition is easy to miss—a small opening into a dark gallery off the long Egyptian art hallway that leads to the ex-Sackler Wing. (Are you still with me, art-lings? Just ask a guard to help you find it.)
Here’s a closer look at the contrasting couples who stare you down as you walk in:
As with the other pairings in this agglomeration, the label text (below) does an excellent, scholarly job of elucidating the individual objects, but fails to explain how the Egypt/Mali connection reveals “unexpected parallels and contrasts,” as promised in the Met’s description of the show. What we do see is similar poses—the arm of a man draped over a woman’s shoulder, with his hand touching her breast.
There are similar superficial similarities between other paired works (as with the two hippopotami pictured in my previous post about the plans for the Rockefeller Wing), but few deeper insights are drawn from those comparisons. Eric Gibson of the Wall Street Journal was even more put off by another attempt at dubious pairings in the Met’s galleries: the coupling of French decorative-arts objects with Disney-related materials. I skipped Inspiring Walt Disney while I was on the premises, because that show’s premise didn’t intrigue me (although it’s probably a good hook for my grandkids). But even without having eyeballed that show, I suspect that Eric’s righteous indignation about the Disney-fication of the Met (not his words) may have been a bit over-the-top:
It’s another example of postmodernism’s great leveling project to eradicate all hierarchies, distinctions and standards by establishing a false equivalence between opposites….I’ve never seen a museum so misuse and diminish the works of art entrusted to its care. The most dispiriting aspect of this episode is the loss of institutional self-confidence it suggests.
Let’s leave the Magic Kingdom behind and return to “African Origin”: In an attempt to give that show a more substantive purpose than displaying displaced masterpieces, it is organized around a vague conceptual construct, described this way by the Met: “Although there was no contact between their creators, the works share deep and under-recognized histories” [emphasis added].
Actually, the relationships between works from west and central Africa and works from ancient Egypt are not “under-recognized” at other museums, even though this may be happening “for the first time in the Met’s history,” as the museum stated. The Brooklyn Museum got there first, most notably with its 12-year reinstallation of its permanent collection in Egypt Reborn: Art for Eternity (ended Oct. 26, 2015), which emphasized the continental connections, as described this way on the above-linked website for that display:
Egypt was the birthplace of the oldest known civilization in Africa [emphasis added] and one of the most sophisticated societies in history….Many European and American universities and museums separate Egypt from the rest of Africa, presenting it either in relation to the European cultures of Greece and Rome or as an isolated phenomenon with no connections to the peoples of central and southern Africa. These “Eurocentric” or “isolationist” approaches are modern. The Greek historian Herodotus—the so-called father of history—fully acknowledged the African aspects of Egyptian civilization when he visited the Nile Valley in the fifth century B.C.
I have my own personal touchstones at my favorite museums, and I was happy to reencounter this one at “African Origin.” I had made a point of seeking it out last April, before I got caught up in the Met’s false-alarm bomb scare:
“Warrior Chief” was then installed as part of an array of Benin plaques. (You can spot it below, on the right side.)
I was particularly relieved to reconnect with my “Warrior Chief” last week in the Met’s newly opened display: I had feared that he might be swept away in the recent wave of Benin objects have been targeted by repatriation claimants, including three very recently relinquished by the Met, which “has some 160 items from Benin City,” according to this NY Times report. What’s more, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art had removed 10 Benin works from display in October (including one that closely resembles my favorite Met piece), with an eye to possibly repatriating them to Nigeria (as detailed in this Smithsonian Magazine article).
While attending “African Origin,” I asked Alisa LaGamma, curator in charge of the Met’s Rockefeller Wing, for her take on the push to repatriate Benin art.
Here’s what LaGamma told me last week:
They [the Benin objects] were given generations ago.They are works that have great resonance for New Yorkers and we haven’t been approached for restitution.
I’m one of those locals for whom these works “have great resonance” and I hope to see at least some of them remain where I can continue to enjoy them. But notwithstanding Alisa’s comment to me, the Met’s recent giveback indicates that Nigeria is not indifferent to the status of the New York museum’s holdings, which are said to have been removed from the Royal Palace in 1897 during the British military occupation of Benin.
That said, the details surrounding the three-object repatriation suggest a way forward for handing such negotiations in the future: The transfer to Nigeria was accompanied by “a memorandum of understanding formalizing a shared commitment to future exchanges of expertise and art, including loans of Benin material from the Met for the opening of the museum planned for Benin City and other branches of Nigeria’s national museums, and loans from Nigeria to the Met for the reopening of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing in 2024,” according to the Met’s press release.
This sort of mutually beneficial, reciprocal resolution of ownership controversies should become an easily achieved norm, not a hard-won exception. I proposed a roadmap for this in my 2008 LA Times opinion piece, Make Art Loans, Not War, in which I observed that “source countries, possessing more high-quality artifacts from their ancient pasts than they can adequately display, don’t need to get everything back….The ownership, but not the venue, of these objects should change.” As I asserted in my 2006 Wall Street Journal article—Truth in Booty: Coming—and Staying—Clean (published on the occasion of the Met’s agreement to return the Euphronios krater to Italy):
Museums and collectors need to be granted some legitimate way to acquire beauty that isn’t booty.
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