“The Three-Headed Male Figure”—African Art (Kuyu)

You may remember last week I posted about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s bizarre laptop policy.  This post is about the reason I was there.  I had to write an essay for my 100 level Art History class on either a Greek, Indian, Egyptian or Sub-Saharan African sculpture from the museum.  You’ll notice in the instructions below that it says we could write about paintings or architecture, but the professor told us to stick with sculptures in class.  It’s not a traditional essay, since there’s no real opening or closing paragraph, but these are the instructions we were given:

The paper (1 – 2 pages) should consist of four paragraphs.  It should be as follows:

Paragraph 1:  Identify the work briefly but adequately.  Start by stating that “the paper will be discussing the formal aspects and the museum presentation of the following piece”, then give the title of the work, name of artist if known –if unknown write anonymous—medium, country of origin and date.  Mention where it is located in the museum.

Paragraph 2:  Describe the work by writing a complete formal analysis.  In looking at the form you will consider the various aspects of form that are discussed in class, such as:  materials, size, texture, kind of shapes and lines, colors, light…etc.  A person who is not familiar with the pieces should get a clear idea of how they look through your description.

Paragraph 3:  Consider how the piece is exhibited (displayed).  That would include, the approximate size of the gallery (room), kind of light used in the gallery, the case where the piece is exhibited; if a painting, the way it is hung.  Mention the other objects in the room and their effect on your chosen piece.   In case you are working on an architectural piece such as a room, it will be within a larger gallery, consider its relation with its surroundings and what is displayed within it.  Do you think the display effects [sic] the piece and the visitor’s experience negatively or positively?  Explain.  If you were the curator, would you change the exhibit (display)? Yes, no, why?

Paragraph 4:  Suppose you’d like to do research on the piece.  What questions would you like to answer?  Write down any question for which an answer can’t be found by just looking at the piece.

So, those are the guidelines I was given to write this paper, and this is what I came up with:


Three-Headed Male Figure: Formal Aspects and Museum Presentation

The paper will be discussing the formal aspects and the museum presentation of the following piece: “Three-Headed Male Figure”. The work is a 19th century wood and pigment statue by an anonymous artist from the Kuyu peoples in the Congo Basin area of what is now the Republic of the Congo. The work is located on the ground floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, New York, in room 352 of the “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” section.

The “Three-Headed Male Figure” is a free-standing, carved wood statue of a partially nude male figure. The statue is cylindrical and appears to be carved from one solid piece of wood. The figure is standing upright, in an erect, rigid posture. The statue’s feet are large and rounded, extending backward from the rear of the leg as far as they do forward. The legs are cylindrical and smooth and are disproportionately short compared to the rest of the body. The lower portions of the legs are covered by sets of raised carved wood lines that resemble simple torques. The arms are narrow and are carved flat against the torso, which is highly cylindrical and lacking in natural definition. The front and back of the torso are covered with an assortment of geometric patterns, as are the upper portions of the legs. A toggle shaped pattern covering the upper legs circles the whole form, but leaves the genitalia exposed in the front. The geometric patterns across the abdomen are mostly rounded, with shapes that include circles, curved lines similar to hills, and beaded areas which are also clustered in circles. The rear of the torso is covered in one pattern of lines with points that extend downward on each side of the spine. The patterns are carved from the same wood as the rest of the statue and are raised from the surface, in relief. They are carved deep enough to provide areas of shadow in the pattern, depending on how it is positioned in relation to a light source. The head of the statue is oblong and taller than natural. The cheeks and foreheads are covered with carved decorations. The features of the faces are carved deeply, with hard, strong lines. The faces are arranged so that one is pointed forward and the other two are angled backwards just behind each shoulder, with no gap between each face. Large portions of the statue were originally covered in white and red pigments. Some of those pigments still remain on the tops of the geometric designs on the upper legs and torso, as well as on portions of the faces.

The statue is positioned in a medium sized gallery room, which is filled with other African art pieces. The pieces are all contained in glass display cases which, in most cases, allow for viewing from all four sides. There are no external windows in the gallery and all of the lighting is artificial. Compared to the Greek and Roman gallery, the lighting is dim, with most of the light being focused on the individual pieces. The lower lighting in the room and the focus of the light sources on the pieces invites the viewer to more seriously consider the artwork on display. The positioning of the lighting also allows for the geometric patterns on the pieces to have areas of shadow, which adds to the viewing experience and gives the pieces more depth, emphasizing the three dimensional aspect of the sculptures. The “Three-Headed Male Figure” is positioned in the center of the rear portion of the room, in its own glass case, with multiple light sources illuminating the statue’s three faces. In addition to focusing the viewer’s attention on the pieces, the artificial lighting in the room protects the wood of the art pieces from sun damage and reduces the damage that could be done to the remaining pigments. The gallery the “Three-Headed Male Figure” is positioned in gives it context. The room is quiet, and the spotlight-style lighting greatly adds to the enjoyment of the viewing experience. The smaller pieces, which are grouped together in large display cases, are well positioned, but to improve the overall experience of viewing the sculptures and other large items in the room, benches could be added, so viewers could sit and reflect.

To better appreciate the “Three-Headed Male Figure”, it would be helpful to have a more thorough understanding of the piece’s background and use. African art is functional, so without understanding what it was used for, you can’t truly understand the significance of the art. To further that understanding, research into the traditions and culture of the Kuyu peoples, and other native peoples in the area, could lend insight into what the sculpture was used for. It would also be interesting to know who in the society made the piece: a professional, a priest, a family member, or the person (or persons) for whom the piece was intended to be used. Besides knowing how it was made and what it was used for, it would also be helpful to know how it was originally displayed in the community and whether or not the people that used it interacted with it, or if it was only viewed. Lastly, it would be worthwhile to find out if similar statues are still used by the native peoples of the region, or if the practice has died out completely.


The paper wound up being 2.5 pages, double spaced and in a 12 point font, which was also required.  The paper hasn’t been graded yet, but when it has, I’ll add that to the new “Essays (Graded)” page I added to this blog, which can be accessed from the tab bar under the header.

And now, the moment you’ve possibly been waiting for.  What does this “Three-Headed Male Figure” actually look like?  (Click on the images to see larger versions).

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff to look at in the Met, and I’m very much looking forward to my next trip there, where I can simply look and enjoy, without having to consider how to write a paper about the sculptures, though I think I will be able to appreciate them more, now that I have a better understanding of how these items are made and what they were used for.

Redefining Racism

aa-race-montage-of-different-racial-subgroupsDid you know that there’s no such thing as ‘race’?  Not in the traditional sense of the word anyway.  I did some reading and watched a video lecture for an anthropology discussion assignment and that’s the idea that was being presented, just from two different angles.  I thought the topic was fairly interesting, so I’m trying to combine my answers to the questions that were asked into a coherent post here.  I apologize if it seems a bit disjointed.

In his essay, The Concept of Race in Physical Anthropology, C. Loring Brace presents evidence showing that people are biologically the same, and that we merely have physical differences that developed based on what part of the world we’re living in, or where our ancestors are from.  He presents an argument of biological populations versus the idea of clines, which says that there are merely gradations of characteristics that flow from one place to the next.

Brace discussed how old travelers would move over land from place to place and they would slowly see people’s appearances change.  He said that the idea of ‘race’ didn’t come into common usage until people started colonizing new areas.  When you’re going on foot, the gradations of appearance are subtle and you hardly notice them, but when you get on a boat in one place and get off the in another, the difference in appearance is obvious right away.  It also gives you a feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’.  You can read more of the details by clicking the document icon at the bottom of the post to download the .pdf of his essay, but his argument against racism is that there is no biological foundation for ‘race’.  We’re all the same species and merely have adaptations suited for the areas we came from.  Brace stated in his essay that he found traits that crossed groups of people popularly identified as ‘races’.

Brace states that “‘race’ is whatever people think it should be”. Since ‘race’ has no biological foundation, the concept of race is culturally relative and is entirely dependent on the observer. That observer’s concept of race will be affected by what part of the world they’re from, the culture they grew up in, and popular ideas of the time. So, a person’s concept of race is completely arbitrary, and will be whatever they think it should be to fit their own world perspective and/or goals.  An example is how Hitler, and many other Germans at that time, considered Jews and Gypsies to be distinct races.

The popular concept of ‘race’ is limiting because it can cause people to narrow their focus to trying to find differences and similarities between ‘races’, instead of across all people, everywhere.  It can also be dangerous, in that it can be used as an excuse to commit atrocities toward other groups of people, or to place those people in positions of ‘justified’ subjugation.

Stuart Hall, on the other hand, argued in the video lecture embedded above that race is a floating signifier, or a badge.  Hall states that ‘race’ is based on shared history and experiences and that our biological features merely act as a floating signifier, so that we can identify each other, and ourselves, with that same shared history. In the case of “blacks”, he used the heritage of the insult of prolonged slavery as the example of the shared history attached to the floating signifier of “black”.

As a floating signifier, we use ‘race’ to assign certain qualities to a group of people, thereby assuring ourselves of our own place in the social hierarchy and creating social stability. In that way, Hall’s ideas align with Brace’s, in that ‘race’ is “whatever people think it should be”, because according to Hall, what people want ‘race’ to be is a stabilizing force in society that lets them know who they are, or how they should be.

(We were then asked to apply Hall’s theory of race formation to the USA.)

Applying Hall’s theory of ‘race’ formation to the US is difficult, because the country is young and there are still large scale immigrations of new people from other parts of the world. A lot of people in the US put a great deal of value on remembering where they came from and holding onto and passing down those traditions, and brush aside new experiences in the US as inconsequential to who they are as a ‘race’. So, if the question is about whether or not an American ‘race’ might eventually form, then it’s possible, a long, long time in the future, if people stop seeing mere physical appearance as the only indicator of ‘race’, but for the near future I think the US will continue to be a collection of ‘races’, the same way that it’s a collection of States.

Another classmate, Henry M., had this to say about applying Hall’s theory to the USA:

In the US, it seems that racial formation is a part of popular culture. In many debates, the “race card” is more often than not misused as a sole basis and foundation for argument without really knowing the history behind it. By perpetuating this misunderstanding, the “code of common sense” Hall talked about is also made immortal by the very people fighting against racism

To which I replied:

One day, when the traditional idea of people being members of different physical races fades away, a new argument will arise to perpetuate traditional distrust and dislike along the same lines. I don’t think it matters whether the idea is one of physical differences or cultural differences, so long as there are people, or actions, perpetuating the stereotypes. The ideas of racism are so embedded into our culture that it would take generations of an aggressive education policy to even start stamping it out. I think one way to achieve that goal is to stop spending billions a year on foreign wars and instead pump that money into public education. How much better could the US be if tertiary education was not only free, but a legal obligation to complete?

The ideas are fascinating, and I’m surprised by how much I’m enjoying being back in school.  It’s nice to have some intelligent conversation and good education to broaden my horizons.

What do you think about these ideas?

The Olmecs and Potential African Influence

We’re covering research methodologies in my Introduction to Anthropology class right now, and to introduce us to a particular concept, which I’ll mention later, our professor had us read up on the Olmecs and then watch a video by a gentleman by the name of Dr. Van Sertima.

If you’re not familiar with the Olmecs, they were a civilization in Mesoamerica from roughly 1500 to 400 BCE and there’s a lot of controversy about whether or not they were a mother culture to the later Mesoamerican cultures, like the Toltecs and Mayans.  A lot of artifacts have been found, showing how the Olmecs’ culture diffused down and out into the other cultures, but nothing showing that the other civilizations’ cultures influenced the Olmecs in the same way.  You can read more about the Olmecs, and the “mother culture” / “sister culture” debate by clicking here, and by reading a New York Times article about it by clicking here, which closes by comparing the effect the Olmecs had on later Mesoamerican civilizations to the lasting effect Greek and Roman culture had on Western civilizations.

After reading up on the Olmecs, we were presented with the following video to watch:


The video is about 46 minutes long.  If you don’t want to watch it all, here’s the relevant information:

This video is a recording of a presentation given by Dr. Van Sertima, where he presents evidence that the Olmecs had contact with Africans.  He goes on to prove this theory by first showing that it was possible for Africans to reach Central America using ocean currents.  He stated that there have been numerous trips made on small boats, some without sails, that have safely made it across the Atlantic, so it is possible.  He talks about the similarity between the depictions of one of the Olmec gods and one of the gods of Egypt, who Africans would have also had contact with.  He also noted that Olmec pyramids had a base that matched the size of the base of the Giza pyramids, and that Olmec rulers took to wearing purple, which was popular among Egyptian nobility.  He also points out that some of the Olmec monumental heads (pictured below) have distinctly African features, and that the helmet the monumental head is wearing looks Egyptian in design.

Olmec monumental head.

Dr. Van Sertima stated that he had been working for years to get the scientific community to at least acknowledge the possibility that Africans and Olmecs had contacted each other at some point, but everyone gave him excuses about why it couldn’t possibly be true, including things as ridiculous as saying the stone head must have fallen over, causing the lips and nose to flatten out.  One of my favorite lines was when he said that every other civilization in the world was traveling and establishing trade routes, so why would the Africans be the only ones that were sitting around doing nothing?  My first thought was that they weren’t as developed.  In some cases, Africans still aren’t as developed as other countries today.  However, in my Art History class we had just covered Sub Saharan African art, and I remembered reading that there were advanced cities in what is now modern day Nigeria as early as around 500 BC, and that remnants of goods from as far away as China have been found there.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they went there to get them, but it does speak volumes for the level of trade and advanced culture they’d developed.

So, do I think Dr. Van Sertima is right?  Well, it’s definitely possible, but given how much he emphasizes that Egyptian cultural traits are evident in Olmec culture, rather than African, I’d say that it’s more likely an Egyptian ship with African slaves got blown off course, possibly caught in a current, and wound up in Olmec territory.  It’s possible that, at some point, Africans sailed to Central America, but if that were the case, why would they have left the Olmecs with Egyptian styles of royal dress (use of the color purple) and why would the Olmecs have adopted an Egyptian god, rather than an African one?  I could argue against that by asking why, if the Africans were only slaves, does the monument resemble an African?  But, maybe the Africans aboard the Egyptian ships doubled as warriors when they landed in Central America, and the Olmecs admired their apparent strength?  Anyway, it’s all speculation, but an interesting topic to speculate about!

After discussing these topics in class, our professor asked us what we can learn about anthropological study from Dr. Van Sertima’s methodologies.  The best answer was something Dr. Van Sertima said: “…history leaves its mark on everything.”  What does that mean?  Well, you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket and rely solely on documents and written records.  You have to think bigger.  Also, it’s important to remember that any written records you come across, including your own, will likely be biased, either consciously or unconsciously, and that you have to take that into account when trying to decipher past events from the evidence we have left to us.