West African artifacts find a new home at Newark Museum
by Dan Bischoff/The Star-Ledger
Saturday June 07, 2008, 10:00 PM
Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art: Featuring the Bernard and Patricia Wagner Collection. Where: The Newark Museum, 49 Washington St., Newark. When: Through Aug. 24. Noon-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (through end of September, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays) How much: Suggested admission $9; $6 students, seniors, and children. Call (973) 596-6550 or visit newarkmuseum.org
The main galleries of the Newark Museum have been painted a dusky blue, and the space outside the first-floor shop bisected by a curving wall like a cylinder within the square. Through the opening in the cylinder you glimpse a huge carved wooden headdress in the shape of a leopard killing an antelope surmounted, in turn, by a rooster, a snake, and a little bird.
All these animals sit atop a stylized human head, with eye holes for the headdress wearer, all carved from a single piece of wood -- the thing must weigh 50 pounds if it's an ounce -- acting as our introduction to the art of the Yoruba culture of West Africa.
"Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art: Featuring the Bernard and Patricia Wagner Collection" brings together works already in Newark's permanent collection with nearly 40 pieces that will be donated to the museum by the New Jersey couple who has collected them, leaving Newark as one of the leading repositories of Yoruba art in the country. The approximately 70 pieces in the show include items from the show's co-sponsor, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Nearly all the objects here were collected in the 19th and early 20th centuries and some may have been made much earlier.
The Yoruba are not strangers to us. About a sixth of all African-Americans are of Yoruba descent, and there are devotees of the Yoruba thunder god, SÃ ngo (pronounced "Shongo"), practicing their religion in Newark, many of them recent immigrants.
"Yoruba is one of the oldest and largest cultural groups in Africa," says Newark Museum curator Christa Clarke, who selected most of the objects on display here. "At least 25 million people claim Yoruba ancestry today, united by the common language and a tradition of divine kingship. Even if most Americans know very little about African art, what they do know is probably Yoruba... Many of the stories about animals told in the South by African-Americans, like the B'rer Rabbit stories, are probably Yoruban in origin, and have been told in Africa for centuries."
With over 400 gods, each with its own personality and intercessional specialty, it's a very complex culture. "Embodying the Sacred" tries to simplify the subject by emphasizing the Yoruban appreciation for art, stressing that a good piece of work needs to be both beautiful and useful (that is, spiritually efficacious). Central to that function is the Yoruban construct of human personality based on "inner" and "outer" heads.
That's the point of the cylindrical wall in the first gallery. In Yoruba culture, everyone is born with both their outward physical appearance and an inner, private face, often symbolized by a conical "head" filled with a mixture of divination powder and earth. People used to (some still do) build shrines to their inner head, and carry it around in an elaborate container decorated with cowry shells and surmounted by a tiny figure of a horseman. The inner head represents your spiritual being, and determines your fate in life. A Yoruban chooses his or her inner head from abstract clay shapes modeled by a heavenly potter. The curving gallery wall that encloses the entire show, figuratively at least, forms its own "outer" head, making the museum into a kind of huge reliquary.
The royal crowns in the first part of the show, elaborately beaded and each topped by a tiny bird (birds symbolize the king's role as an intermediary for his people to the gods), are also conical in shape. In the second part, we see various tools of worship or divination, like the large, carved platters, filled with chalk dust when in use, that are dedicated to Esu, the messenger god of Yoruba culture. A specially trained caste drags beaded chains or their fingers through this dust and uses the patterns to determine fortunes and even the kingship. The large cast metal scepters and staffs here represent badges of office or actual gods themselves, like the five-foot-long cast dedicated to Orisa Oko, the god of farming (flanked by two elaborately decorated sheaths), or the cast human figures linked by a chain that mark the Ogboni, who form a kind of supreme court for the Yoruba.
Finally, the exhibition displays costumes and masks worn in masquerade performances for the dead. There are wonderfully elaborate, layered textile wraps (including a contemporary example commissioned by Montclair Art Museum director Paterson Sims and donated to the Newark Museum, with telephone wire for hair) which are used during festivals to protect the community's social and spiritual well-being. Several of the masks are extraordinarily beautiful, delicately carved to tilt the face (worn on the forward part of the head) out toward the viewer while leaving a dancer's eyes unblinkered, each one a paragon of stylization.
But the room is dominated by another chiseled wooden headdress, even larger than the leopard/antelope one at the entrance, carved by Bamgboye of Odo-Owa around 1940 and long a part of the Newark collection. With some 35 figures, including a large equestrian one at the center, all standing on an abstracted head with great, ovoid eyes, it's a marvel -- and a testament to Yoruban art, most of which is sculpted by long-dead anonymous hands. Bamgboye was a famous carver, much sought after in his day (he died in 1978), and he is here credited like any Western artist.
The radical distortions and simplifications of Yoruba ritual sculpture inspired some early Western Modernists, but this show goes a long way toward establishing the full range of Yoruba aesthetics. Bamgboye was hardly alone.