Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 17, 2015
Christina Hellmich and Manuel Jordán, eds. Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2014. 304 pp.; 350 color ills. Cloth $85.00 (9783791354330)
Exhibition schedule: de Young Museum, San Francisco, January 31, 2015–July 5, 2015

Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture is an ambitious exhibition project accompanied by an equally substantial catalogue. Highlighting 120 selections that constitute almost half of the private collection of Dr. Richard H. Scheller, the exhibition is composed of an eloquent mixture of “classical” or “canonical” works, to use the catalogue’s terminology, punctuated with a jaw-dropping array of rare and unusual sculptural forms that “challenge commonly held assumptions about African art,” to quote the exhibition’s online description, and underscore the sheer diversity of sculptural traditions that exist across the broad swathe of West and Central Africa. Yet the objects in this exhibition also reflect the careful tastes of a collector who takes enormous joy in figural form and approaches acquisition with a methodical eye toward provenance and surface quality. In addition, they reveal the depth of professional expertise that was tapped to select and explicate these visually and conceptually potent forms as a representative cross-section of a meticulously crafted body of work.

The exhibition catalogue manages to encapsulate these diverse narratives by pulling together multiple conceptual and visual perspectives to create an engaging balance between a beautifully crafted art book and a slightly atypical scholarly work. The images themselves promote a surprisingly sensual engagement with the exhibition objects through the sensitive and astute photography of Robert A. Kato, whose plates are organized to emphasize the transitions, transformations, and trajectories of the human form across the diverse geographic contours of West and Central Africa. The essays that bookend these plates, however, do not follow the usual conceptual trajectory of providing primarily aesthetic and functional analysis; instead, they dig deeper into the sciences of perception, conservation, identification, and visual reproduction as they relate to the arts of Africa. In an interesting twist that is as refreshing as it is occasionally confounding, the essays work with the visual material to produce a more individual glimpse of the Scheller collection through the rarely nuanced processes of provenance research, physiological perception, conservation practice, and photographic documentation.

The catalogue begins with a contribution by Scheller himself, “The Genesis of an African Art Collection”—a fitting title for an essay that not only chronicles the birth of Scheller’s interest in African art, but also highlights his career as a former professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and now as Executive Vice President of Research and Early Development at the biotechnology corporation Genentech. Scheller’s expertise is revealed in his narrative of the factors and impetuses behind his acquisition approach, with important observations concerning how his phenomenological experiences with objects led him to engage top scholars in the field of African art and museum studies in order to craft a varied yet somehow cohesive body of objects. Although Scheller occasionally deploys fraught terms like “tribal” and “magical,” the account he provides is both unique and informative in that it comes not from the perspective of a humanities scholar, but from that of a collector and a scientist who has molded his acquisition methodology via a careful, critical accumulation of self-knowledge and professional expertise. It should also be noted that Scheller stresses the importance of provenance research in furthering one’s understanding of these objects, which over time and space become increasingly layered with additional physical and conceptual patinas that add tiers of relevance and meaning to a work’s infrastructure. This emphasis on provenance is also significant as it gestures toward the driving concept of the exhibition—embodiment—and how histories create both visible and nonvisible deposits of meaning and resonance on works that allow them to tell stories and truly “embody” the sensibilities, practices, and beliefs of their multiple contexts.

The next essay, by Manuel Jordán, curator of the exhibition, takes a more logistical turn in dissecting the conceptual infrastructure of the exhibition itself, highlighting the fact that equal attention is given to objects that are “question marks” alongside ones that are solidly placed within documented practices and oeuvres. The straightforward and largely non-interpretive tenor of Jordán’s writing also effectively deconstructs the formal, functional, and provenance-oriented components of the selected works as a mode of reconnecting them to broader readings of African expressive culture. By framing African art as a type of cultural text, which is perhaps a slight oversimplification, Jordán nonetheless effectively lays out the mechanics of the objects on display in terms of how they function both independently as products of their original contexts and collectively as part of this cohesive exhibitionary assemblage.

The next two essays outline what could be considered the exhibition’s “scholarly contribution” to the discipline, beginning with Bernard de Grunne’s “Fang Statuary: From Classic to Iconic.” This essay is, in a word, exhaustive in terms of the object histories, etymologies, and provenance information it meticulously compiles. Beginning with a case study of legendary French art dealer Paul Guillaume, de Grunne uses Fang sculpture as an entry point into discussions of early Western collecting practices and the development of vocabularies for considering African expressive form. He then proceeds to address the idea of the “classical” as a potential descriptor for such iconic works, turning to Greek classicism as “the wisest choice . . . in determining whether there is a Classical style of African Art” (28). This comparison may have a few conceptual hiccups in that it assumes the existence of a cohesive Greek classic tradition characterized by an essential body of normative characteristics, an idea increasing challenged by contemporary classics scholars. However, the next essay, “‘Africa Is Continually Bringing Forth Something New’: The Canonical and Non-Canonical in the Scheller Collection,” by Constantine Petridis, nuances the problem of terminology further by engaging with issues surrounding the “canonical” versus the “non-canonical.” Although occasionally deploying terms like “authenticity” with regrettably little self-reflexivity, Petridis calls for an opening of the “canon” of African art to become more embracing of the so-called “non-canonical” (of which there are notable examples in the exhibition), and to legitimize material constructs that embody the “innovation and creativity” that “drive this stunning diversity of forms and styles, as does the input of individual artists” (34).

From here, the catalogue takes readers on a tour of the richness and diversity that characterizes the works chosen for the exhibition. Through plates that address objects individually in terms of their unique formal and functional qualities, their historical narratives, and of course their meticulously chronicled provenance information, readers get a sense of the diverse yet cohesive nature of Scheller’s collection and the subtleties of taste and preference that inflect his collection trajectory. Some pieces, like the Anago/Ohori-Yoruba figure from Benin (plate 24), are odes to the type of inventive conceptual and figural experimentation that Petridis pinpoints as being fundamental to the historical arts of Africa, whereas other pieces, such as the Miba figure from Togo (plate 22) and the Ishan figure from Nigeria (plate 25), are visually arresting because of their complexly textured patinas, which are dramatically captured by Kato’s photography. This intense focus on patina becomes a fitting visual segue into the final two essays: “On and Below the Surface: A Conservator’s View of African Sculpture” by Head Objects Conservator at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Leslie Bone; and Kato’s “Shaped by Light: Photographing the Scheller Collection.”

Bone’s contribution is particularly significant in that it addresses many of the tensions and problems that exist at the heart of these objects from both conservation- and concept-oriented perspectives. Not only does Bone acknowledge the multiple realities that objects gain as they migrate from their original contexts and accrue additional physical “layers” on their surfaces, but she further observes that the objects themselves are only one part of the “embodiment” process; most traditions require participants, rituals, additive materials, and other components to truly become the “embodiments” they were meant to be, and such factors pose considerable problems for the conservator in terms of properly handling and “respect(ing)” these forms (283). Bones also details the issues involved in identifying the various materials that comprise these objects and describes the irony of enlisting Scheller’s expertise as a “pioneer of DNA research” (288) to run a series of analyses toward this end. Although the cost and labor intensiveness of the tests make them largely unsustainable on a broad scale, Bones indicates that they nonetheless paint an optimistic view of how technologies will be able to advance the field of conservation in the future.

The final essay is a fitting way to end the catalogue. As an artist, photographer, digital printmaker, post-production consultant, and educator, Kato is tasked with crafting the readers’ experience of these objects within the two-dimensional medium of catalogue photography. Using the driving factors of light and texture, Kato has carefully mediated interactions between object and individual by photographing each work in the catalogue in a way that highlights their unique components. What is most interesting about Kato’s written narrative, however, is that he says he initially gravitated toward “artistic” lighting (291) for these works, the presence of quotations implying a number of alternative narratives. In fact, Kato seems very aware of the more “ethnographic” modes of representation that have long defined two-dimensional representations of African sculptural form, and he opts instead for an individual treatment that highlights each object’s unique visual and textural features.

Taken together, the catalogue’s images and essays combine to create a beautifully rendered volume that underscores a superior collection and provides both significant and unusual contexts for the reader to ponder. Although the catalogue as a whole would have benefitted from at least one essay oriented around a dedicated engagement with the idea of embodiment, a multi-layered concept whose reification in both Scheller’s collection and the exhibition would have potentially yielded important insight into the works themselves beyond simply that of the human figure, the catalogue is a solidly formulated volume that effectively highlights the various dimensions of an outstanding collection of African sculptural forms.

Michelle Moore Apotsos
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Williams College