New on View: Art and Ritual Life

The works currently on view in the gallery of African art, drawn from the Art Museum’s collection and from private collections, represent the fundamental link between art and ritual life in many African societies. In their original contexts, the works’ artistic value often depended as much on the processes through which they became symbolic objects as on their formal qualities.The works make us aware that art in African societies has long been tied to social life and ritual systems. As a result, a sculpture was more likely to be associated with the individual who owned it or the diviner or priest who used it rather than with the artist who produced it. 

Yorùbá artist: Gelede headdress, 19th century.(2011-62)In their local contexts, sculptures—like a nkisi (pl. minkisi) figure or gelede headdress—become both objets d’art and symbolic objects, helping to sustain the lives of individuals and their communities. Reproductions of vintage postcards produced by African and European photographers in the first decades of the twentieth century help contextualize several objects on view. Works of art themselves, the postcards, one of which shows Maiden Spirit masqueraders wearing gelede costumes similar to the one on view in the gallery (above), illustrate how the objects on view might have been used, bringing them to life in ways not always possible through display and gallery labels alone.