“Crossroads”; a tripartite ongoing installation (check metmuseum.org for three current gallery locations)
With The M.C. Rockefeller galleries at the Met closed for a major renovation, just a few works from the permanent collection of African, ancient American, and Oceanic art have found temporary homes elsewhere. A figurative sculpture from Mali by a Dogon artist stands out in one section of the small integrative exhibition, “Crossroads,” subtitled “Power and Piety,” installed at a crossing gallery between areas of, primarily, European Medieval art. The Dogon work is presented in striking juxtaposition with a German carved polychrome “Black Magus” — both are about life-size and probably made within a century of each other on either side of c. 1500 (the European work more securely dated); both assume distinct gestures that suggest animation.
The stylistic variance is stark—one with simplified, tubular anatomy and one with naturalistic detail. One emphasizing biological sex and gender (genitals; beard, puffed chest), one, a covered, ambiguous body–identified, iconographicly (king/male). Renditions of the apocryphal king Balthazar, who met his regal peers from afar at the Bethlehem bedside of the (white) baby Christ, as the Black African magus was just becoming popular in Adoration scenes throughout Europe. So one is an insider and one an outsider vision of an African spiritual “ancestor”? Through this pairing I suddenly saw the European work much more as a votive than the proto-Renaissance foray into realist form that is often emphasized in analyses of European art of the era. Both sculptures tap into ancestor worship common to most mystic traditions. One disregards concepts of “others” with an idealized portrayal of members of its local audience; one subsumes and familiarizes an “other” beyond its real viewers.
The eroded condition of the Dogon work probably is due partly to ritual use outdoors and its periodic moving in and out of storage. Its aesthetic value in its own society depended on its effectiveness in its intended spiritual functions–inextricable from its form. Not at all was preservation in perpetuity prioritized in this time and place for this object type, pace the mimetic magus meant to stand forever in the altar tableau in which he was first displayed. In fact, not much is known about the production, use, or transport of this specific Dogon work. The brief accompanying text beneath the pair, followed by object labels, is rather vague: “Two wood figures embody similar responses … ” – similar for/to whom? Don’t get me wrong … I really like this thinking and thought-eliciting exhibition. Its vagaries (almost any object and juxtaposition could be stretched to fit the themes) are also its strengths in potentially rotating the permanent collection in new ways.
Then again, oversimplifications implying close “comparison” can seem to force, in some cases, similarity over differance* —or a differentiation between object/image qualities and the paradoxes of culture-crossing that can illuminate. (*Sorry to dredge up Derrida, but sometimes his neologisms do make sense).
The depiction of the black magus seems individualized (i.e., portrait-like) and flattering in balance and proportion; a representation which, however, turns on the sartorial signification of European (“white”) Christian patrons to whom it was primarily addressed. Perhaps the museum texts could be a bit more probing – or, a provocation to viewers to question how and why and what this pairing might evoke about the past in various contexts–emphasizing the inevitable Western perspective/s in which these … effigies (?) are engulfed.
The veneration of bodily and object relics of earthly turned-to-divine beings is shared across the globe as well as time, addressed here with the juxtaposition of a French carved wood (with polychrome traces), stiff and frontal Virgin and Child (c. 1200), and a small-scale, intricately-worked Tibetan brass sculpture in the form of a stupa (c. 1500) or early Buddhist temple. The Christian work has a hidden compartment, an element prevalent in many medieval free-standing images of Christian saints, partially differentiating them from full-on “idols” (challenged in the juxtaposition discussed above, as mentioned, in terms of the Christian work). In fact, this element is rarely emphasized in assessments of medieval sculpture for focus on developments in sculptural figuration. The Virgin Mary is “the church”– building, vessel, in Catholic theology. Inversely, the architectural stupa invokes the incarnate as well as spirit of the Buddha (along with some of his enlightened “helpers”).
Other pairings in this section include colossi (some in fragment form) from Egypt, Rome, and Meso-America that obviously conjoin godly and earthly omnipotence.
The two other clusters are somewhat more narrow and subdued, but interesting, namely Spanish interaction with the Americas and the Far East; and Greco-Near Eastern overlaps in “mythical beast” types. Collectively, again, the overall curatorial concept points to potential for creative, ongoing gallery re-arrangements of the permanent collection, on the heels of relevant ideological shifts in postwar museology broadly.