Thursday, February 10, 2011

Cementing RVA as #1 in Sculpture

Amongst all the hoopla about Picasso coming to town, a show every bit as magnificent is opening with not nearly the attention it deserves.

Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria was last at the British Museum where it wowed critics and visitors alike.

They were the first to call it "a once in a lifetime exhibit," a sentiment echoed today by VMFA staff as African drummers beat their approval of the speakers' sentiments.

And is it ever.

The life-size portrait heads of kings and rulers are made of various metals, stone and terra cotta.

And while there may have been some idealizing done in the rendering of the heads, each is unique in depicting one particular person.

But it's not just the bigwigs who are represented.

"Figure of a Dwarf" from the 12th-15th century shows Ore, the hunter diety, who was known to beckon visitors from a distance with his laughter and spontaneous joy.

Now that's a diety I can get behind.

Another striking piece, "Figure of a Man with Elephantitis of the Scrotum," from the same period, was a realistic depiction of a dreaded disease that was unfortunately all too common at that time.

Most head portraits show the facial (and sometimes belly) striations popular in Ife culture.

Clothing denotes the subject's station in life.

But every piece of sculpture in this show is quietly eloquent in how well it describes its subject.

Coinciding with the opening of this magnificent exhibition is the reopening and expansion of the African galleries.

The entire 1970 wing of the VMFA is now devoted to the art of Africa.

And while VMFA has assembled one of the best collections of African art in the country, it is only now that it has a proper home.

The masks and textiles, including beadwork that is breathtaking, beg for a closer look.

Moving from case to case, I couldn't help but think how mind-blowing it is that the VMFA only began acquiring African art some thirty years ago.

With any luck, all the people who come to see Picasso will make the time to see Dynasty and Divinity.

Richmond has one of the top sculpture programs in the country and for the next three months, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this profoundly important show of some of the world's most important sculpture, rarely seen outside of Nigeria.

As I was making my way around the show, a VMFA employee came up to me and leaned in to ask, "Karen, do you write the ICGOAO blog?"

I admitted it was so.

"You're the only blog I follow. You're intrepid! I want to have your life," she told me.

I don't know about that.

She gets to go to work every day at the VMFA and I can't think of a more beautiful or inspiring place to call work.

But it was my first time being called intrepid.

And I have to admit that I kind of liked it.

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