At Pace Primitive, Ancient and Tribal Objects Offer Windows to a Multicultural Past

  • Image courtesy of Pace Primitive.

An exhibition of ancient art can feel like a history lesson, intended to edify the viewer about a particular time or place. That’s not quite the case for “Ancient and Tribal Sculpture,” the current show at Pace Primitive in New York. The multicultural exhibition presents an array of complex, engaging works while allowing the viewer trace her own path through the gallery and forge her own connections.

The showstopper? A two-meter-tall Egyptian sarcophagus from the 23rd Dynasty (circa 825–730 BCE) that housed the remains of Princess Sopdet-em-Haawt. During this period, political power was dispersed, and Sopdet’s father was one of several kings who ruled smaller regions along the Nile. Political instability halted royal tomb construction, so incantations normally reserved for tomb walls had to be placed on the coffin itself. As such, columns of hieroglyphs overrun the coffin below Sopdet’s surprisingly soft face. Her opulent, intricately inscribed sarcophagus simultaneously bolstered her family’s claim of power and asserted her place in the afterlife.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, a sculpture from Gandhara, in what is today northwest Pakistan, reminds us that ancient societies were often culturally intertwined. Alexander the Great, having conquered the region, brought classical Greek traditions that influenced Gandharan art in subsequent centuries, as in a third-century standing Bodhisattva carved from gray schist. The iconography derives from the Buddhist religion that dominated Gandhara, yet the figure features subtly modeled musculature, a contrapposto stance, and naturalistic swags of drapery that recall Hellenistic sculpture. Nearby, a Roman marble torso cinches the cultural connection.

  • Image courtesy of Pace Primitive.

While the larger objects on display might draw the most attention, there’s plenty of intrigue in a small ceremonial drinking horn from Cameroon. Its pattern suggests interwoven straw, while stylized scorpions, snakes, and salamanders slither over the surface. The artist, whoever he or she was, completely dematerialized the buffalo horn from which the piece is carved.

Teeming with life and movement, the object forms a marked contrast to the timeless rigidity of other pieces on display—proof that ancient and tribal artists were able to achieve a remarkable variety of effects.

—Brett Lazer

Ancient and Tribal Sculpture” is on view at Pace Primitive, New York, May 5–21, 2016.

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