Review: Presholdt on Kerma and Benin Exhibits

Review: Presholdt on Kerma and Benin Exhibits

"African Urban History thorough Art"


"The Ancient Nubian City of Kerma, 2500- 1500 B.C."
"The Ancient West African City of Benin, A.D. 1300-1897."

National Museum of African Art
Washington, D.C.
Continuing Exhibitions

By: Jeremy Pretholdt
Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution

As a method of historical interpretation, African art possesses the ability to visually detail the construction of African cultural and material history. Artistic traditions graphically render African self-perception, yet art and material culture are very rarely critically examined by African historians.(1)

The National Museum of African Art's joint exhibits, "The Ancient Nubian City of Kerma, 2500-1500 B.C.," and "The Ancient West African City of Benin, A.D. 1300-1897," provide a forum to address this oversight. Though not without minor short comings, they succeed in informing historian and layperson alike on topics relating to African artistic expression and self-representation in two historical contexts.

The National Museum of African Art's brochure dutifully notes, "Most African art objects are made from organic materials," and therefore, "do not last long because they cannot resist the damaging effects of the climate and insects." In this light, the two recent exhibits are of particular significance, as their manufactures are of great permanence. The Kerma collection is constituted mainly by articles of four media; metals, precious minerals, ivory, and pottery. Royal Benin Art, on the other hand, highlights the medium of copper-alloy produced uniquely for a palatial setting.

Additionally, the exhibits in many ways complement each other in terms of historical reconstruction through art. While both Kerma and Benin use objects to illuminate history in a distinct fashion, their approaches are drastically different. Nubian Kerma is examined from an archeological perspective, while textual documentation and oral history inform the interpretation of Benin artistic products. By incorporating these approaches to African aesthetics, the exhibits move beyond the strictly artistic, and offer art in a cultural and historical light.

The collection of objects on an extended loan for "The Ancient Nubian City of Kerma, 2500-1500 B.C." is part of a body of findings acquired by the Harvard University Museum of Fine Arts, Boston between 1913 and 1916. Modest in size, the exhibit boasts a very eclectic ensemble of objects of material culture. Three general sections divide the exhibition hall; pottery, articles of personal adornment, and items of funerary significance.

Most prominently displayed are a wide variety of potteries, primarily from Kerma's Classic period (1750-1570 B.C.). The bowls, cups, jars, and various other vessels are functional and artistically impressive. These elements and the level of craftsmanship underscore the high standard of ancient Nubian technical achievement.

The exhibit is also host to an interesting composite of personal adornments which chronicle Kerma's consumption of luxury commodities in both the Classic and Middle (2500-1750 B.C.) periods. Most conspicuous is the considerable use of ivory. The collection includes worked ivory in the form of pendants, similar ornate articles of corporeal flattery, and a dagger hilt. Other items of particular note are beads and bracelets fashioned out of silver, gold, and carnelian.

It is unfortunate, however, that these effects are not accompanied by more information concerning Nubia's trade relations with the wider Mediterranean and African world or by an explanation of their degree of vocational specialization. Similarly, the historical development of ancient Nubia is only hinted at, and the exhibition script, as a whole, is often lacking in ethnographic interpretation. The Kerma exhibit partially remedies this deficit when exploring Nubian burial rites as preserved through ivory inlayed burial bed fragments and cosmetic vessels dressing the latter display cases.

The second, and more expansive of the two exhibits is "The Ancient West African City of Benin, 1300-1897." A reinstallation of the National Museum of African Art's permanent collection of royal casts from the capital of the Benin Kingdom, most of the objects on display have been publicly presented before.

The diversity of this assortment of copper-alloy casts is, nonetheless, continually striking and the NMAfA holds perhaps one of the most stylistically diverse and well-studied collections of Edo art in the United States. Twenty-one copper-alloy (often incorrectly labeled "bronze") objects, dated between the 16th and 19th centuries, are highlighted in the collection, accompanied by a lone ivory spoon, proportedly designed for the 16th/17th century export market.

Although a considerable amount of ink has been spilled over the Eurocentric notion of "high art" in Africa, the royal art of Benin is one of the most historically informative arts in all of pre-colonial Africa. For the historian, Edo royal art is a treasure, as we rarely have at our disposal African self-representations from the pre-colonial period. Historically crucial, copper-alloy, like its predecessor and contemporary, terra cotta, has proven one of the most durable materials to immortalize moments in the African past.

Three overlapping themes structure the museum's most recent exhibit of Edo art; including representations of the Oba, the court, and foreigners. The diverse objects complement each other nicely. For instance, one addition to the permanent exhibit is an extremely ornate bell similar to those adorning Edo warrior figures represented in many of the plaques and figures of the wider collection. In the same vein, the military side pendant pictured in numerous court plaques, is complemented by a 16th/17th century triple figure pendant of similar usage.

>From a ethno-historical perspective, the objects are especially illuminating in their descriptive detail. One of the prizes of the exhibit is a 19th century Oba head appropriately adorned with kola nuts, an ivory tusk, and leopards; denoting prestige, wealth, and power. An additional full-length Oba figure, complete with staff and ceremonial sword, offers the historian graphic illustration of patterns of royal complement and iconography. In general, the highly stylized portraits of court life paint a dramatic picture of Benin adornment, armament, military organization, religious symbolism, and social construction, while retaining an impressiveness of design and manufacture.

Perhaps an even more important ethno-historical feature of the exhibit is its uniqueness as documentation of African self-representation. The works of art supply a lens through which to view the Edo as they perceived themselves in distinct historical periods. This artistic self-representation grants us a wealth of information on commodities of cultural and/or economic importance, perceptions of outsiders, and ethnic identity.

The many palace plaques and figures, which realistically present scenes of court life, are instrumental in recording royal perceptions of self and other. Soldiers are prominent within the court theme, many plaques dating to the 16th century. Representations of Europeans also figure prominently in some pieces including a European face etched into, appropriately enough, a musket stock. Also on display is an 18th/19th century pendant depicting a European merchant on horseback decorated with hands, as the exhibition script offers smugly, "to grasp wealth."

Perhaps the only shortcoming of the exhibit is its lack of historically substantial accompanying text. It is curious that at the entrance the script relates, "understanding their [objects] meanings requires a knowledge of the kingdom's culture and history." Despite this assertion, the exhibit strays from giving much attention to a contextualized Benin history. On the other hand, the museum allows historiographers to examine the self-representation of this African civilization in detail through more than five hundred years of art history.

The museum as a learning tool is, with adequate interpretation, a good supplement to the textual narrative. The historically informed skeptic may be assured, despite minor deficiencies, the exhibits are of depth. Moreover, the NMAfA provides docents who usually have done extensive research in the areas under scrutiny and, although I happened to question the critical historical rigor of my guide as we briefly passed over six hundred years of Edo history, they seem more competent than those of many other African collections.

As historically situated artistic representations, both exhibits are useful and appealing. As teaching tools, they are uniquely endowed; both are visually stimulating and historically pertinent. Objects of ancient material culture are complemented with the more familiar notion of "high art" and graphic representation in a generally atypical manner for African art.

Most importantly, however, Kerma and Benin, when taken as a whole, provide a very broad survey of African cultural history through very distinct regions, civilizations, and historical periods. Moreover, they add a greater constructive humanity to history and present the viewer with a realistic view of both the historical object and a fuller understanding of African historical self-perception. For this, they are well worth a visit.

Jeremy G. Prestholdt National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution <>

(1) Perhaps the most celebrated exception to this is Jan Vansina, *Art History in Africa: An Introduction to Method* (London: Longman, 1984).

Copyright H-Net, 1996. All rights reserved. Fair use granted.

Date: Thu, 18 Jan 1996 16:13:17 -0500 From: Harold Marcus <> To: Multiple recipients of list H-AFRICA <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Subject: REVIEW: Presholdt on Kerma and Benin exhibits

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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