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collection includes more than 35000 objects.
Gallery of Sub-Saharan African Art
October 12, 2003 - December 31, 2005
refurbished, this new gallery showcases the Museum's finest examples of art
from Africa, south of the Sahara with 62 objects in wood, terracotta, brass,
ivory, cloth and other media on view. The majority of works are wooden masks
and figures made in West and Central Africa in the late 19th to early 20th
Admission to this gallery and the museum is free.
Plaque, possibly 1500s–mid
Nigeria, Benin Kingdom, Edo people
John L. Severance Fund, 1999.1
The gallery is organized geographically
with a division in four broad cultural regions: Western Sudan, Guinea Coast,
Nigeria and the Congo Basin.
Objects from the same culture are shown
together and contrasted with those of their neighbors.
This arrangement illustrates the formal and stylistic relationships between
neighboring artistic traditions and emphasizes the uniqueness of the arts of
The cultural regions are marked in the gallery by four free-standing cases
containing a single work of art that may be viewed from all sides.
Ivory Coast, Senufo people
James Albert and Mary Gardiner Ford
Memorial Fund 1961.198
Among the Fodonon Senufo subgroup,
mother-and-child figures are related to the female Tyekpa association and play
a role in funerary ceremonies in which they are carried on the participating
The four-legged stool on which the figure sits is much easier to balance on
the heads of the dancing women. However, among the Central Senufo, similar
female figures were used as stationary display sculpture for the male Poro
In the context of the Poro and its female counterpart, mother-and-child
figures probably refer to “Ancient Mother,” the central deity of the Poro
initiation cycle. She is responsible for the protection and instruction of the
initiates, which are her “children,” nursing them with the milk of
knowledge and thus transforming them into perfect human beings.
A feature of the new Sub-Saharan African Gallery is a
large touch-screen interactive focused on the museum's Ejagham headdress. This
interactive was produced by Associate Curator of African Art, Constantine
Petridis, and his colleague Amanda Carlson - a Cleveland native who
specialized in the arts of the Cross River region.
Carlson's field videos have also allowed the museum to
introduce the dynamic performance context that is so characteristic of much
African art into the static display of the museum gallery. Even more
innovative in an art museum context, Amanda's additional fieldwork on Ejagham-derived
traditions in Cuba and the United States have made it possible to explore the
presence of African art and culture in the Americas.
Skin-covered cap or crest masks, made of fresh, uncured antelope skin
stretched over a softwood carved head, are a distinctive naturalistic art
form of the Cross River region in the southeastern part of Nigeria and
western Cameroon. This realistic headdress depicts a woman's head with a
long neck, rounded facial features, realistically rendered teeth of strips
of cane, and a faithful imitation of a horned coiffure. The wickerwork
skullcap at the base of the neck would have been secured on the
masquerader's head by a string under his chin, and his body entirely covered
by a long gown. That such headdresses were originally covered with human
skin is not impossible given that they are said to represent heads of
enemies killed during wars, and thus attest to their owners' exceptional
The style of the Cleveland headdress is characteristic of the lower Cross
River region, in or around the town of Calabar in Nigeria. Skin-covered
headdresses were indeed used in different secret societies of the region
among various peoples. The elaborate hairstyle with curving
"horns" and the head's facial features indicate that this
headdress was most probably worn by a woman in the context of the Ekpa, a
society of Ejagham women that was responsible for the education of the girls
in preparation for marriage. The headdress could represent a girl who
embodies ideal female beauty and is ready for marriage. The hairstyle
depicted was actually worn during the coming-out ceremony following the
girls' seclusion in the "fattening house."
In a striking example of the African diaspora to the New World, the culture
of the Ejagham and their Efut and Efik neighbors is closely related to that
of the male Abakua society in northwestern Cuba. The elders of this Abakua
society consider skin a charm that allows the capture and control of the
spirits of the dead.
Petridis, Constantine. South
of the Sahara: Selected Works of African Art. Cleveland:
Cleveland Museum of Art, 2003.