African Galleries- British Museum

In March 2001, I went at the British Museum to visit the new Sainsbury African Galleries. There is an exhibition of some 600 treasures on display out of a collection of some 200,000! As you enter, there is a dedication to Henry Moore in the stonework. He discovered the less-favoured African and Oceanic exhibits which helped him to revolutionise British sculpture.

The "star" of the exhibition is perhaps the 16th Century Queen Mother Head, which is one of the most renowned works of African art. Emerging from a rigid metal neck-brace Queen India's face is both sensual and tranquil; the sculpture was commissioned by her son after her death and placed on an altar in the royal palace. She is remembered in Benin as "the only woman who went to war" raising an army so that her son could resist invasion. Also shown in her face is the sadness that after her son became ruler she was never allowed to see him face-to-face again, although they could contact each other through an intermediary. Also on show is the exquisite 12th Century brass head of a king from Ife, Nigeria.

There is a vast wall hanging by Chant Avedissian, hand-dyed in the artist's Cairo studio with cotton panels in a series of earth-tone oblongs. Sokari Douglas Camp, who was born on the Nigerian Island of Buguma, draws her inspiration from a teenagers masquerading group in her native country. They call themselves Okolokurukuru or "Black Vagina" featuring a wall video showing how dance, music and swirling textiles play a vital part in the region's culture.

The exhibition also included intricate Afro-Portuguese ivories from the 15th & 16th Centuries, masks and carvings from Southern Nigeria and Ashanti gold-work from Ghana. Many of these treasures were acquired in the 19th Century when Britain's imperial involvement in Africa was at its height.


Verinha Ottoni.


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