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Art: African 'bronzes,' in cultural context

An exhibition at the Penn Museum helps capture the meaning of the Benin metal sculptures.

Among the motorcycles on display in the "Born to Be Wild" exhibition at the Reading Public Museum are the 1936 Indian Chief, left, and the 2005 Predator. In addition to the flash, the show also aims to celebrate imaginative design.
Among the motorcycles on display in the "Born to Be Wild" exhibition at the Reading Public Museum are the 1936 Indian Chief, left, and the 2005 Predator. In addition to the flash, the show also aims to celebrate imaginative design.Read more

When, just after the turn of the last century, some European artists became infatuated with African sculpture, they responded to its often astonishing formal inventiveness.

For centuries, European sculptors had been striving for lifelike realism. Africans, by contrast, were more concerned with forms that expressed spiritual or magical properties.

The Europeans, Picasso most famously, took what they admired from African sculpture and ignored cultural context. Picasso's appropriations became cubism, while African art remained confined to ethnographic museums until relatively recently.

No art from sub-Saharan Africa has been more celebrated than the so-called Benin bronzes - "so called" because while their dusky patinas look like bronze, and for years they were believed to be cast in that noble metal, many castings turn out to be copper alloys of various kinds, such as leaded brass, that do not contain tin.

No matter. Benin metal sculptures, which come from Benin City in southern Nigeria (not the country of Benin, which abuts Nigeria on the west), are arguably the most glorious manifestations of art from west Africa in the world's museums. Like Chinese ritual bronzes from the Shang Dynasty, they're technically dazzling. It's on this level that Westerners can most readily appreciate them.

Yet like the Shang bronzes, those from Benin also embody meaning rooted in the culture that created them. It's this contextual dimension that the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology presents through an exhibition called "IYARE! Splendor and Tension in Benin's Palace Theater."

The Penn Museum owns an extensive collection of cultural artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin, now part of Nigeria. The first collection of its kind in the United States, it once was also the largest; now it's outnumbered by those at the Field Museum in Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Most of the more than 80 objects in the show come from the museum's collection. The remainder are loans from institutions such as the National Museum of African Art in Washington, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The exhibition grew out of a Penn art history curatorial seminar conducted by Kathy Curnow, a museum research associate who was a visiting lecturer at the university in the last academic year. It's a collaboration between the students and Curnow, a Philadelphia native who teaches at Cleveland State University.

A specialist in the art of Benin and its culture, Curnow has lived all or part of 13 years there.

"IYARE!" - in the Edo language it means "May you go and return safely" - is designed to show how the bronzes and other artworks fit into a specific cultural milieu, palace life and ritual in the Kingdom of Benin. It presents this milieu, with its ceremonies and visitor protocols, as a kind of theater in which artists and artisans play a central role.

The celebrated bronzes - the term continues to be used because it's a long-standing convention - can be appreciated as perhaps the most important symbols of traditions that go back centuries.

The fabled bronze heads, for instance, are typically memorials to former obas, or kings, and clan chiefs, and are objects of reverence. (The current oba is a law graduate of Cambridge University in England.) One head in the museum collection commemorates an early queen mother. They are usually displayed on altars; the show includes a reconstructed 19th-century altar framed by elephant tusks.

The other principal sculptural form in metal is the high-relief plaque. The plaques, which are fastened to the wooden pillars that support the palace roof, mainly depict images of courtiers and animals. Older ones occasionally include figures in Portuguese dress that refer to early explorers and traders along the West African coast.

The show's five memorial heads and eight plaques are augmented by other imposing examples of Benin art, including a large brass serpent's head that once adorned a palace tower; a carved ivory crocodile; small human faces, in metal, worn by chiefs on their hips; a ceremonial "dancing sword"; and a necklace of coral imported from the Mediterranean region.

The objects have been organized into six thematic sections that place them into their appropriate cultural, religious, political and social contexts over the last five centuries. They're augmented by videos of ceremonies and of artisans at work. The result is a tightly focused "dramatic lens" that reveals how a once-powerful African culture celebrates its glory and perpetuates it despite diminished political authority.

Motorcycle mania.

When the Guggenheim Museum mounted an exhibition of motorcycles in 1998, it proclaimed that popular culture deserved a seat in the fine-arts museum. The motorcycle show was ostensibly about design, a legitimate museum topic, but critics concluded that it was really about the culture of motorcycles. Not surprisingly, it drew big crowds.

Now the Reading Public Museum has entered the populist arena with its own motorcycle show, "Born to Be Wild," which is also presented as a celebration of imaginative design - which, to an extent, it is. Yet the core appeal, like that of the Guggenheim show, derives from the sociology of motorcycles, especially their outlaw or nonconformist image. The allure of the biker's freewheeling life is expressed through exotic permutations of chromed engines and decorative excess.

At least the show goes beyond flash in constructing a historical time line through bikes such as the fabled Indian Chief and the 1940 Harley Davidson police model, in deep green. Visitors can see how motorcycles evolved from primitive motorized bicycles to raging beasts such as the low-slung, 140-horsepower Predator, built in 2005.

"Born to Be Wild" is good, clean fun for motorheads, cycle buffs and youngsters, who for once don't have to put up with pedantic art-historical exegesis. They relate intuitively to these flamboyant machines; I saw and heard them do so, too often for comfort.

Art: Art for the Palace

"IYARE! Splendor

and Tension in Benin's Palace Theater" continues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South St., through March 1. Hours:

10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday- Saturday, 1- 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 general and $5 for seniors and students with I.D. Information: 215-898-4000 or


"Born to be Wild" continues at the Reading Public Museum, 500 Museum Rd., through Jan. 4. Hours: 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Tuesday- Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, and noon-5 Sunday. Admission is $8 general and $6 for seniors, children 4 to 17, and students with I.D. 610-371-5850 or

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