Review: African Masterpieces With the Grace of Kings


If there was any silver lining to the recent announcement that the Metropolitan Museum of Art would begin charging a mandatory $25 admission fee to out-of-town visitors this spring, it was this: The charge includes admission to all special exhibitions too. Unlike the leading encyclopedic museums of London, Paris or Vienna, the Met will offer a single ticket for its permanent collection and its rotating displays. Bundling those together allows curators to present shows that may not always be easy crowdpleasers and whose importance cannot be assessed by foot traffic alone.


A tsesah royal crest. In the Bamileke societies where these masterpieces emerged, the crest was the marker of a king’s authority — and aesthetic similarities suggest that rulers went out of their way to find the best artists. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

One extraordinary example opened recently in the museum’s African wing. It contains just four works, by artists whose identity cannot be established (plus one bonus item), but they pack enough stunning technique and transcendent authority for a blockbuster of their own.


Reenactment of a tsesah performance in Bandjoun, western Cameroon, in 1993, organized by the carver and high-ranking official Paul Tahbou. A performer holds the crest atop his head. His body is covered by an indigo resist-dyed ndop cloth. This photograph is the only existing document demonstrating how a tsesah might have been worn. Credit Alain Nicolas

In “The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests From Western Cameroon,” you’ll find a quartet of massive wooden crowns, known as tsesah crests, that served as avatars of kingship among the dozens of small monarchies of the Bamileke people in the grasslands of northwest Cameroon, near the contemporary border with Nigeria. Each is carved from a single piece of wood and takes the form of a highly stylized face topped by a vast vertical brow. The earliest and most fragile, dating to the 18th century, entered the Met’s collection last year. Its three cousins, of finer finish and about a century more recent, have been lent from the Smithsonian in Washington, the Menil Collection in Houston, and a private collection. Put them together, examine their differences, understand their African political significance and their western aesthetic impacts, and you have a thundering show.


Crest, 19th century. A century ago, Picasso fell in love with the stylized features of African sculpture. What he missed was its spiritual, legal, and political power. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Only 15 tsesah crests still exist worldwide, and an American museum has never assembled so many at once. Each is a hefty three feet tall; their eyes are rendered as lightly outlined ovals, and the cheeks protrude so sharply as to form a ledge. Noses and mouths comprise simple geometric shapes, cones and spheres and half moons, while the towering brows are festooned with designs of startling intricacy. In the Met’s early example, the brow is shaped like a spackling knife and retains the burl of the wood grain, though its top edge has been splintered over time. In the three 19th-century crests, the brows are carefully incised with rolling waves, in the case of the Menil’s example; interlocking diamonds in the Smithsonian’s; and a modified checkerboard pattern in the privately owned specimen.


A tsesah royal crest, carved from a single piece of wood, takes the form of a highly stylized face topped by a vast vertical brow. It was an avatar of kingship for the Bamileke people of Cameroon’s Grassfields region, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

In the Bamileke societies where these masterpieces emerged, the tsesah crest was the primary marker of a king’s power and authority — and aesthetic similarities in far-flung examples suggest that rulers went out of their way to find the best artists. Courtiers would wear or hold these crests at enthronements, legal proceedings, funerals. (A 27-foot-long resist-dyed cloth, whose deep blue background is overlaid with interlocking crosses and chevrons, is this show’s final object; it would have marked out a seating area for royals.) Scholars believe that a tsesah crest would be passed to a successor, but knowledge remains patchy: all the world’s surviving examples were collected late in African colonial history, and were no longer in ritual use.


Viewing the royal display cloth (ndop) at the Met. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Your first impulse, encountering them at the Met, in stately glass boxes under precise pin lights, will be to think in aesthetic, not ethnographic, terms. The eyes, cheeks and broad semicircular smiles cohere into commanding, larger-than-life abstract faces. African artists’ rendering of complex features into smooth, stylized profiles would later prove decisive for the development of western modernism — notably Picasso’s proto-Cubist art of 1906-09; the hot-colored expressionism of Kirchner and other painters of Die Brücke; and the masquerades of Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara and other figures of Dada.

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