Only about 40 years ago, then, did Westerners attempt to understand this tribal art by engaging with its makers. Although we often fetishize Western artists’ creative personalities and lives as individuals, details about the Hemba people remained untold for decades as historians fixated on the objects instead of the cultures and people that produced them.
In their essay, the Blakelys discussed a wooden “chimpanzee-human” mask that features a long, curved incision for a mouth, thin slit eyes, and a teardrop nose. The artwork, they claimed, is supposed to inspire fear. “If you as a Muhemba [an individual Hemba] saw anything like this…you would not pause, but would run full blast in the opposite direction,” they wrote.
At funerary festivals, a community member dresses up in ceremonial regalia (perhaps a barkcloth cape with pelts and monkey hair framing the mask) and chases pregnant women and young people. Later, this so’o dances and performs, inspiring joy and laughter. According to the Blakelys, the alternate conjuring of fear and happiness offers counterpoints to feelings of grief. The so’o helps the community work through death while “satisfying the desires of the dead to be remembered, celebrated, and appropriately sent off to their new abode,” they wrote.
The Blakelys concluded that “direct-viewing methods of analysis and interpretation alone, or in combination with minimalist identification of local terms or ‘symbols’”—what many museum visitors received at the time—were insufficient. Good exhibitions, they suggested, would unite numerous pieces from the same region or ethnic group.
In 2011, curator Alisa LaGamma staged “Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
, one of the most comprehensive surveys of African art to date. To emphasize the multiplicity of her theme, LaGamma divided
the exhibition into eight sections, each celebrating a different geographical tradition.
Many of the objects included in the show were, in fact, dated before colonialism. In his review for the New York Times
, Holland Cotter wrote
: “This means that realism in art, which the West tends to view as its distinctive accomplishment, developed independently in Africa, though there, with so many other rich options available, it was only sporadically esteemed.”
In particular, Cotter lauded the included Hemba sculptures as “one of the great sights in the museum these days.” In addition to their beauty, sophistication, and nuance, he pointed out their moral dimension. Figures of Hemba leaders established heroic values in the community: transparency, moral sobriety, and—with reference to the Janus figures, perhaps—“a capacity for looking backward and forward from wherever you stand.” Our own 21st-century leaders would do well to take note of such values.