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

BradleyCollege Papers, Day Trips, Undergraduate Work0 Comments

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.

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