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Today, scholars universally recognize Africa as the source of our common ancestry. But in 1974, Senegalese scholar and humanist Cheikh Anta Diop (1923–1986) shocked and challenged historians with his groundbreaking book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality. In that now-classic text, he asserted that ancient Egypt—whose civilization was a source for the subsequent development of cultural traditions in the rest of the African continent and the Western world—belongs to Africa. In recognition of Diop’s visionary call to acknowledge Africa’s foundational role in major cultural developments, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition The African Origin of Civilization, opening December 14, will present, for the first time in the Museum’s history, iconic works from its collections from West and Central Africa alongside art from ancient Egypt. Additionally, important creations by master sculptors from sub-Saharan Africa will be highlighted in permanent collection galleries across the Museum.
Forty-two masterpieces of African art spanning five millennia will be displayed in the exhibition, which features highlights from two areas of The Met collection—the Department of Egyptian Art and The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing—in a series of visual and thematic juxtapositions. Twenty-one examples of the artistry from ancient Egypt, created between about 3650 and 350 B.C.E., will be paired with 21 works from sub-Saharan Africa, ranging in date from the 16th to the mid-20th century and representing more than a dozen distinct artistic traditions. Materials primarily include gold and other metals, stone, wood, and ceramics. Despite the chronological and geographical distance between the works in these two distinct collections, visitors will discern unexpected parallels and contrasts that will deepen their understanding of the breadth and depth of Africa as a source of civilization with unparalleled complexity and longevity.
The exhibition is made possible by The Florence Gould Foundation and Louise Grunwald
Since 1982, The Met’s holdings of art from sub-Saharan Africa have been displayed in The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, whose galleries are currently undergoing a major renovation, reenvisioning, and reinstallation. Launched six years ago, this capital project—scheduled for completion in 2024—provides a unique opportunity for visitors to experience superb works of art from West and Central Africa in new contexts across The Met campus.
Objects have been discovered in tombs and other archaeological contexts that reflect well-established trade networks between ancient Egypt and Europe and Western Asia. And the interconnections of the great civilizations of ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and ancient Egypt, as evidenced by shared motifs and artistic forms, has often been commented upon. Less noted, but no less important, is Egypt’s inextricably deep cultural connection with the African continent at large, and the two-way exchange of materials and ideas between Egypt in northern Africa and the rest of the continent to the south. The 21 pairings in this exhibition foreground the resonance of shared ideas and motifs across Africa’s many cultures: family, motherhood, love, kingship, regalia, beauty, and the natural world. A timeline of some 80 major cultural moments in African history encircles the exhibition, underscoring the continent’s importance as both the fount of human creative expression from its inception and the site of continued cultural dynamism.
The exhibition serves as a springboard for a series of installations of important sculptures from West and Central Africa in permanent collection galleries across the Museum. These “guest appearances” introduce unexpected cross-cultural connections between works of art from different places and times. The first four installations, on view in the galleries for Ancient Near Eastern Art, Greek and Roman Art, Medieval Art, and European Paintings, begin December 2, 2021. New installations are scheduled to appear later this winter and spring.
The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing
The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing was inaugurated in 1982 to house The Met’s collection of African art, Oceanic art, and ancient American art. A foundational collection of some 500 works from sub-Saharan Africa devoted primarily to figurative sculpture from West and Central Africa was given to the Museum by Nelson Rockefeller from his personal collection in 1969. Over time, additional gifts and acquisitions have deepened the collection and expanded its scope. It now encompasses some 4,000 works relating to 206 distinct cultures and 39 nations, from Ethiopia to South Africa.
Department of Egyptian Art
The holdings of the Department of Egyptian Art at The Met date from the Paleolithic to the Roman Period (ca. 300,000 B.C.–A.D. 4th century). The collection comprises approximately 29,000 objects of artistic, cultural, and historical importance. More than half of them are derived from the Museum’s 35 years of archaeological excavations in Egypt, initiated in 1906 in response to increasing Western interest in the culture of ancient Egypt. The capstone of the collection is The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing, which was given by the government of Egypt to the people of the United States in 1967.
The exhibition is a partnership organized by Alisa LaGamma, Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge of The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, and Diana Craig Patch, Lila Acheson Wallace Curator in Charge of the Department of Egyptian Art. The “guest appearances” of African sculptures in galleries across the Museum represents collaborations between Alisa LaGamma and her curatorial counterparts in The American Wing and The Robert Lehman Collection and the departments of Ancient Near Eastern Art, Arms and Armor, European Paintings, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Greek and Roman Art, Islamic Art, Medieval Art, Modern and Contemporary Art, and Musical Instruments.