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African Sculpture from The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania

November 23, 1986–February 8, 1987

African Sculpture from The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, an exhibition of 88 masks, sculptures, magic figures, and objects of everyday use, will be on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from November 23, 1986 through February 8, 1987. The exhibition was organized by guest curator Allen Wardwell, who wrote the accompanying catalogue. Through long apprenticeships with master carvers and rigorous schooling in the beliefs of their people, African sculptors have developed an almost intuitive feeling for creating objects which appear both beautiful and meaningful to those who see and use them. Good craftsmanship, balance, attention to finish, fine detail, and the treatment of the human form as an idealized image, in the prime of life and radiating strength and health, are among the common denominators of the sculpture displayed, which represent some 44 separate peoples. The exhibition is grouped into sections according to three principal factors that underlie the creation of much of African art: the transmission of laws and traditions to the young, communication with the spiritual world, and material evidence of wealth and prestige. The first section consists primarily of masks used by young men in ceremonies which demonstrate their knowledge of their people. Masks may represent any number of significant figures within the group, including ancestors, powerful spirits, cultural heroes, and important members of the society. They range stylistically from an elegant, naturalistic gu mask of the Ivory Coast, carved in flowing, curved rhythms, to the fine parallel grooves and boldly abstract form of a kifwebe mask from Zaire. Objects made to facilitate communication between people and the spiritual world are chiefly in the form of human or animal figures, frequently rubbed with palm oil and coated with other potent materials to imbue them with magical powers and maintain their effectiveness. Among the most arresting sculptures in this section is a large-scale nail figure of the Kongo Kingdom in Zaire. Iron nails and blades, each representing a specific judgment reached or role performed, have been driven into almost every part of the torso. Yet the treatment of the face is naturalistic, the open mouth suggesting that the image is about to speak to the beholder, adding to its supernatural aura. Objects of daily use, such as neck rests, stools, wine cups, pipes, and boxes are created to proclaim the taste and social position of those who owned them, as well as to make their lives more comfortable. Much of this art is purely decorative, designed to be seen and admired by other members of the community. Certain examples serve to signify that their owners are rulers entitled to the prerogatives of leadership, such as a staff which belonged to a Tshokwe ruler in Angola, embellished with a skillfully carved idealistic portrait of a ruler. African Sculpture from The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania was selected from over 11,000 sub-Saharan objects owned by The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, to honor the institution's Centennial Celebration. The exhibition does not attempt to survey all of the major style expressions of West Africa, but rather provides an opportunity to view these sculptures as eloquent works of art imbued with the beliefs of ongoing cultures.

Main Building


The National Endowment for the Arts
The Pew Memorial Trust
Rohm and Haas Company
The Phoebe W. Haas Charitable Trust "B"
Bell of Pennsylvania


Allen Wardwell
Donald J. LaRocca

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