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Ancient African art showcased at Catholic museum

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443 East 115th Street
New York, NY 10029
212.828.5208 (fax) 


read also > Bura Heads: Terra Cotta Sculpture from Africa

Originally posted 9/21/2006

The National Museum of Catholic Art and History is hosting two African exhibits that demonstrate the ancient opulent cultures of The Congo and Niger—“The Kuba Chalice African Wood Carving from The Congo” and “Bura Heads: Terra Cotta Sculpture from Africa.”

Both exhibits, sponsored by Citigroup and New Heritage Theatre Group, were organized by Professor Philip Gould, professor emeritus of art history and the guest curator. These exhibits are a testament to how African culture contributed to Western contemporary art and depict the wide range of exchange among other cultures and artistic sources. According to Gould, in the early 20th century, African masks and wood sculpture began to appear in the studios of French artists. As artists such as Picasso and Matisse grew deeply influenced by African art, they created “modern art.” Against this historical backdrop, it is easy to recognize that the artifacts in these exhibits have a strong significance not just in Africa, but to the larger world of art.

The first exhibit, “Bura Heads: Terra Cotta Sculpture from Africa,” showcases the 2,000-year-old terra cotta head sculptures that were uncovered over 20 years ago in the shifting sands of the Sahara. Another African civilization was revealed when the Bura site was uncovered in southwestern Niger lying close to the banks and tributaries of the Niger River. According to Gould, neighbors to the Bura, the cultures of the Nok, Sokoto, and Katsina of Northern Nigeria, were among the first millennium group to inhabit the banks of the Niger River. The solid Bura heads were originally part of ceramic hollow jars that were used as mortuary monuments meant to commemorate the ancestors.

Gould calls the sculptures “generic portraits”—sculpted with just enough detail to render the image of a human being. While this minimalist style is prevalent throughout the exhibit, no two heads are alike. “I treat this exhibition from the point of view of art,” Gould said. It’s a memorial of the deceased, but at the same time it’s an expression of the artist and expression of the culture.” Bura artists achieved individual identity by using the least amount of detail, such as, scarification, hairstyle, facial shape, and the tilt of the head. In this way, each artist was able to express their own style in creating the head.

The second exhibit, “The Kuba Chalice African Wood Carving from The Congo,” tells the history of the artistic relationship between the Europeans and the Kuba Empire during the 15th century. The Portuguese, especially, marveled at the artistic excellence of the Kuba’s commissioned works in raffia and ivory. Gould explained that the idea of the Chalice, created over 400 years ago, was brought from Europe to The Congo. Therefore, the Kuba incorporated European design into their artwork. For example, the exhibit features, along with wood chalices, other wood containers carved with the decorative designs of Kuba artistry; likewise, the raffia portion of the exhibit shows wood carved vessels influenced by Chinese enamel wine pots.

Gould, who owns the two exhibits, travels extensively promoting these works with the hopes of enlightening people in the rich culture of Africa. “When we go back in tradition, we remember artists,” he said. “It’s the art that best exemplifies periods of history and our own past.”

The exhibits will be showcased at The National Museum of Catholic Art and History, located at 443 East 115 Street, between First Avenue and Pleasant Avenue until September 30. For more information, call (212) 828-5209 or visit 

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