An artifact, a piece of African art, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said “is a story of my people…it’s not just art but an old story, a piece of history.” It was her way of dealing with the question of the power of art posed by moderator Alisa LaGamma recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Adichie was joined on the panel by Professor Joseph Miller, and New York Times reporter Helene Cooper. They were assembled to share a conversation on Africa’s heritage in conjunction with an exhibit titled “Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures.”
During her introduction, LaGamma, who is the curator of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the museum, asked the panelists to center their comments initially on the importance of the oral tradition and its influence on African literature and its past.
Consensus was a word that Miller, a professor at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville with extensive field work in Angola among the Chokwe people, often used as he talked about collective oral tradition where one “invokes the familiar in order to create a consensus of agreement,” he explained. The erudition was heavy and replete with such concepts as “historiology” or roughly “a consensus of meaning” between speakers.
Cooper, fresh from covering President Obama’s State of the Union address, recounted her experiences coming of age in Liberia and hearing the stories her relatives told her as her contribution to the topic under discussion. One of her uncles often related stories to her. “And a lot of it was true and a lot of it was not,” she said. This is reminiscent of the exchange between characters in Adichie’s novel where Ugwu isn’t sure what to make of Jomo’s tall tales of subduing dangerous animals.
During the research on her memoir The House at Sugar Beach, Cooper recalled finding a copy of a journal written by a family patriarch. “I was most interested in how he felt going back to Africa,” she said of Elijah Johnson, who had been living in the states. It was this bit of information that led her to study her family tree.
The family was also instrumental in Adichie’s journey into the past, particularly in her novel Half of a Yellow Sun. However, from the outset, she makes it clear that she didn’t want to talk about the oral tradition. While she didn’t elaborate on this point here, in other places she has, noting, “I’m often struck by a sense of loss…because our traditions are oral and because I think the advent of colonialism and Westernization was a break. The oral traditions are almost dying and we don’t have a bridge between the two.”
Then again the subject itself may have been ineffable, especially so in the sense that her conversation returned often to the exhibit and the magnificent art on display, art that Miller observed had been “stolen from the people.”
For all the effusive and grandiloquent words praising the exhibit, it must be seen to see how in its totality from Obas to the Cameroon Grassfields the overflowing galleries of African statuary and other splendid items challenge the conventional perceptions, the overworked stereotypes that Adichie warns us against, not because they are not true, she said, “but that they are not complete.”
To be sure, the exhibit is by no means definitive, but it offers a poignant and unforgettable slice of the masterpieces from Angola, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zambia.
It is hoped that you were among the hundreds who saw the exhibit which opened in September because it moves on now to Zurich, though the catalogue is available. But like the conversation from the panelists, it’s all right but there’s nothing like the real thing.