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L: Efomba, commemorative figure, first quarter of 20th century. Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nkundu. Wood, fiber, and pigment. 2013.78.5. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Richard H. Scheller. Photo © Robert A. Kato; R: Eyema byeri (the image of the ancestor), figure from a reliquary assemblage, 19th century. Gabon, Fang Ntumu. Wood. Private collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato

L: Efomba, commemorative figure, first quarter of 20th century. Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nkundu. Wood, fiber, and pigment. 2013.78.5. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Richard H. Scheller. Photo © Robert A. Kato; R: Eyema byeri (the image of the ancestor), figure from a reliquary assemblage, 19th century. Gabon, Fang Ntumu. Wood. Private collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato

Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture

January 31, 2015July 5, 2015
Textile Galleries 60-61

This selection of sculptures from sub-Saharan Africa pays homage to the figure in African art. Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture features 120 pieces from the collection of Richard H. Scheller, composed of classic and iconic sculptures as well as more unusual examples that challenge commonly held assumptions about African art. The geographical breadth of the collection and the variations in its depictions of the human form will allow visitors to explore both the histories and the formal qualities of these works of art.

Approximately 110 cultural groups are represented by sculptures spanning several centuries and encompassing a broad range of styles, from realism to abstraction. In their original contexts, these objects represented ancestors, expressed community values, and served religious and ceremonial purposes. For example, Luluwa artists carved bwimpe (power figures) that expressed ideals of beauty as a moral virtue through their highly intricate coiffures and stylized scarification marks, and rituals associated with these sculptures offered protection to women and their children.

As works of art that were removed from their originating communities and entered the art market, the sculptures in this exhibition express value systems and cultural relationships both inside and outside Africa. Works such as the eyema byeri (or “the image of the ancestor”), from the Fang Ntumu of northern Gabon, were once placed atop reliquaries containing human remains. During the early 20th century, such sculptures circulated among European and American dealers and collectors whose interest in African art was spurred by a passion for modernism. The Scheller Collection eyema byeri was once owned by Paul Guillaume, a Parisian dealer and champion of modernist art who was also an advisor to the legendary Dr. Albert Barnes, founder of the Barnes Foundation.

Exhibition Preview

Mpungu, power figure, 20th century. Republic of the Congo, Teke. Wood, fiber, shell, metal, and dye. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Female figure, late 19th-early 20th century. Côte d’Ivoire, Lagoon region. Wood and pigment. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Container used to evoke hamba kayongo, an ancestral spirit of divination, 19th century. Angola, Ngangela. Wood, bone, and fiber. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Figure used in male initiation ceremony, late 19th century. Mali, Bamana. Wood and copper alloy. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Gbene (human figure combined with cup) used for ceremonial beverages, early to mid-20th century. Nigeria, Koro. Wood and pigment. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Male and female divination figures representing high-ranking individuals, 19th century. Côte d’Ivoire, Guro. Wood and fiber. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Singiti, ancestor figure, 19th century. Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hemba. Wood, hide, and pigment. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Chiwara kun (farming wild animal) headdress, early 20th century. Mali, Bamana. Wood, metal, and plastic. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Mbulu-ngulu, figure from a reliquary basket, 19th century. Gabon, Kota Obamba. Wood, copper alloy, copper, and dye. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Ugonachonma (the eagle seeks out beauty), prestige figure displayed at festivals and dance competitions, 20th century, probably before 1950. Nigeria, Igbo. Wood and pigment. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Eyema byeri (the image of the ancestor), figure from a reliquary assemblage, 19th century. Gabon, Fang Ntumu. Wood. Private collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
 Soompa (Nigeria, Chamba, active 1920s—1940s), Female figure, early 20th century. Wood and pigment. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Ti ngünga, dance headdress used in nja (harvest festival), 20th century, Cameroon, Bamum. Wood, cowries, cane, and pigment. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Boho-na-bwete, figure from a reliquary basket, 19th-early 20th century. Gabon, Mahongwe. Wood, copper alloy, and copper. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Maternity figure, late 19th-early 20th century. Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kongo,. Wood, copper alloy, and glass. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato
Musaw (headrest) owned by an esteemed person, 19th-early 20th century. Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yaka. Wood, copper alloy, and pigment. Richard H. Scheller Collection. Photo © Robert A. Kato

This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

President’s Circle

The catalogue is published with the assistance of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment for Publications.