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Cleveland Museum of Art hosts unique exhibition of powerful African artwork

Meredith Collier

Issue date: 4/24/09 Section: Focus
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Bowl Bearer, made from wood, brass tacks, iron, and beads and hailing from the Luba people of Africa, is one of 60 works of ancient African art on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Media Credit: Dick Beaulieux:
Bowl Bearer, made from wood, brass tacks, iron, and beads and hailing from the Luba people of Africa, is one of 60 works of ancient African art on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Constantine Petridis, curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, has a charming sense of humor. "For the 15 people who actually like African art, this is fascinating," he joked as he motioned toward a majestic mother-and-child figure, a true masterpiece of African art.

Petridis is naturally joking because his exhibition, Art and Power in the Central African Savannah, has already become extremely popular.

"It's the first time in many years that we've done an African exhibition. The last time we hosted one, meaning that we didn't organize it - we just hosted it - was in 1994," said Petridis He said the last time the museum actually organized an African art exhibit was some-time in the 1930s.

Petridis organized the entire exhibit himself, combining a few of the museum's pieces along with several pieces with private collections as well as from other art museums around the world. The collection hosts 59 artifacts in all. It features pieces from four different African peoples - the Luluwa, Chokwe, Songye, and Luba - all located within the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo, along with parts of Angola and the Republic of Congo.

Each of the pieces that Petridis has chosen to feature in his exhibition relates in some way to controlling power, whether it be religious or political. "The word 'power' in the title refers to a specific type of power. The first power…is actually religious or spiritual power," said Petridis. "The power figure…is basically an object that serves as a vessel or container of literally all kinds of ingredients or substances. It's a container for the spirit world."

Other pieces are political and represent the wealth and power of elites. Figures depicting elites often feature extremely complex scarification on the face and body, as well as culture-specific features. For instance, influential men in Chokwe art are depicted as having oversized hands and feet, a symbol of strength and power. Powerful Luba women - sometimes referred to as the "hairstyle people" - wore particularly elaborate hairstyles that would take nearly 50 hours to complete. In Luba art, these hairstyles are even more complicated and intricate to create the perfect representation of feminine power and beauty.

Each of the figures in the exhibit is wonderfully expressive and detailed, yet one of the most impressive features about the pieces is just how well they have been preserved. Several pieces, particularly those created by the Songye, feature animal pelts, snake skins, elephant tusks, and elaborate beading and shellwork. "None of the objects in the show…were meant to survive. They were meant to decay or to disappear. They were used, they served a purpose, and after awhile, they vanish," Petridis said.

Thanks to people like Petridis, they won't.

Art and Power in the Central African Savannah is open now and will run at the Cleveland Museum of Art until May 31. Admission is free.
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  • Alternative Press editor offers disappointing analysis of scene culture
  • Case alumnus Girl Talk returns for end-of-year blowout
  • Cleveland Museum of Art hosts unique exhibition of powerful African artwork
  • Juggling Club's end of year spectacular wows audience with skill
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