Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Recorded Dec. 2020. Led by Sculptor Garth Evans, and joined for the talk by Lee Tribe, Jock Ireland, and Brandt Junceau, Sculpture Forum explores the works of the Sahel, a vast and influential region in Africa south of the Sahara, through the recent exhibit of over 200 works covering the empires of Ghana (300-1200), Mali (1230-1600), Songhay (1464-1591) and Segu (1640-1861).

Here are some excerpts from this thoughtful conversation exploring the universality of the human condition and the challenges of contemplating and understanding sculpture removed from its original time and location:

“I am actually very nervous about talking about this work because it seems, to bring my criteria to it, is in some ways questionable when I don’t know the criteria the makers of these objects were using or how the audience responded to them.” – Garth Evans

“I will say some words. . .

I come to it personally as a collector and a sculptor. I’ve always been a collector. As a child I lived near the docklands of London, and I was always picking up matchbox tops and things like that. Once in a while I would see something either on the ships where I went with my father even as a little boy and where they had African crew: I would see things: masks. All the sailors who settled down in the area as well had things. You’d go into peoples’ houses and it wasn’t unexpected to see something from Africa or India or where ever. . .

There’s what they are as sculpture and what they are as a collection—and the joy of finding something that you can include and live with—that’s a very important part of it for me. . .

I don’t try to literally take anything from them in a clear and thought-out manner. If anything turns up in my work that I think relates to them I let it exist—and something does turn up quite a lot. . .

I’ve wondered how we see them now is different to how people like Picasso and Matisse and Brancusi saw them. I wonder if after the advent of non-representation in art, do we see them differently?” – Lee Tribe

“The question of invention is something that I’ve wondered about a great deal: the extent to which there was complete harmony between the makers and the audience, the viewers, the users of these thing—the extent to which there was some kind of friction as there has been in relation to sculpture in the West. We are not by any means at one with what we might consider the general audience.” – Garth Evans

“It’s the contemporary dimension of at least the clay pieces in the show that really floored me—left me feeling that this was the most significant sculpture show that I saw this year certainly.” – Jock Ireland

“This is the kind of response I’m unable to have—and am very wary of having” – Garth Evans

“I felt more like a tourist at this exhibition than I remember feeling at any other. I usually don’t have quite that feeling. . .

At the same time I’ve always really kind of prized the isolation of an art object in an exhibition. The kind of radical, stringent, almost ruinous separation of the thing from its origins. That in itself is not a problem for me: it’s more of a thrill.” – Brandt Junceau

“I should just chuck in: Alisa LaGamma is doing a fantastic job at the Met and we’re very lucky to have her there. She’s putting on fantastic, very selected and intelligently chosen shows to establish these different cultures in a particular way with a lot of respect and I am humbled by her efforts and the shows she puts on.” – Lee Tribe

“What you just said, Lee, about the power of these things existing somehow independently of the context for which they were made is the nub of the matter I think. How do they/what is it about them that enables us/you—and I don’t disagree with the statement—enables that statement to be made: that they have a power which transcends the context.” – Garth Evans

“I think it’s a multiplicity of things. But essentially it touches something of the human condition. We are all human. We’re just people.” – Lee Tribe

“One of the questions I guess I have is—I wonder if Nicole Eisenman was familiar with these things before the show. Did she see the show?” – Jock Ireland

“I was most interested in the textiles, and that one very small stone idol. And there was a slender wood piece that you, Lee, spoke of as being atypical.” – Brandt Junceau

“It was a throwaway thing, a post that was stuck in the ground to tie horses to or something—now it means something to us in the 21st century.” – Jock Ireland

“We recognize the human condition. I’m amazed how similar it is from 4,000 BC until now. We’re so much the same. I’m still astounded by that.” – Lee Tribe

“I agree, Lee, but our willingness to see what we like, take what we want facilitates that sensation as well.” – Brandt Junceau

“It does, but there we are.” – Lee Tribe

“But it was just as true for these people as it is for us.” – Brandt Junceau

“I just want to say in closing that some of these things I found really quite scary.” – Garth Evans

“Perfect.” – Lee Tribe

Please provide comments in the Reply box at the bottom of the page.

2 thoughts on “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

  1. Thank you Garth and everyone for this forum, I regret I wasn’t able to see the exhibition but Jock kindly passed on the link and Ive just watched it, as well as had a good look at the catalogue. A couple of thoughts arose as I watched the video which I thought id share, at risk of revealing too much of my ignorance.

    Firstly there was quite a lot of discussion about who these were made for, why they were made, for what purpose and how they might have been received etc. I wonder if these questions, which I think are imperative to ask and ponder in light of there being insufficient knowledge to fill in the blanks, might be on our minds as its the question that is most relevant now for us as artists, in relation to our own work and the act of making it, as there seems to be a void out there, a disconnect between the issues that concern us and those that are considered or relevant to a patron. Its almost that the sense of unknowing and mystery that we feel whilst in the presence of ancient work when contemplating its audience is weirdly also the sense of unknowing and mystery we feel when contemplating our audience.

    Secondly, there was some discussion about a little standing figure that was bent forward, # 120 in the catalogue, that Lee observed was so because the piece of wood chosen to make the sculpture was bent that way. I wonder if numbers 129, 89-93, 87 and 120 from the catalogue also began a similar way. In relation to #120, I noted as I first came across it in the catalogue that it felt light, as if it were floating, more than easy to pick up, but literally it felt like it was hovering, as the others do a bit. I wondered whether this quality was discerned by the maker in the wood and whether that discovery was what led the maker to make the item, and if so , why ? Do you think it had something to do with Islam? Something Else? Is there a connection between the way expressive attributes are “seen” in the materials in the case of these sculptures and the way imagery is “seen” in the walls of the cave at say “Lascaux”

    Thanks again for the forum Garth, Lee, Jock, Brandt, Rachel.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. After the recording (but before the recording was posted), the discussion continued via email:

    Jock Ireland
    Fri, Dec 4, 9:31 PM (10 days ago)

    to Garth, Rachael, Brandt, Lee, Maud

    Garth, are you scared of sculpture?

    I’m kind of kidding, but at the end of our SF exchange Wednesday you said something along the lines of you found some of the pieces in the Sahel show scary. I believed you at that moment. Thought that was a genuine (though maybe a shallow/limited) response, what I’ll call an emotional response. I kind of didn’t believe anything else you said. Thought most of what you said was what I’ll call, borrowing from our friend Yves Bonnefoy, a conceptual response.

    When Bonnefoy writes about art, he writes as a poet. He’s NOT writing art history. He’s NOT writing art criticism. You seem to be reluctant to talk about the sculpture in the Sahel show as a sculptor. You seem to want to talk about the Sahel show as an art historian—or not without the support of an art historian’s knowledge. Bonnefoy has great respect for art historians. He says, “For even if we hope to be able through a certain sympathetic intuition to discover in the artist’s work some essential aspects of his most intimate experience, the fact remains that this experience comes to us already inscribed by the artist in networks of perceptions, notions, biases, and values belonging to his country or the culture of his time, and therefore very different from our own: a fact that encourages those who do not know any better to interpret them according to their own dreams and desires. Art reveals its universality, when it has such universality, only at those moments it is free of the mirages that its distance on the horizon of history creates. Indispensable, therefore, is the rigorous work of the historian and the philologist; they reconstruct the object or, more precisely, the event upon which the critic must reflect.” I’m guessing you think I’m someone like the guy Bonnefoy describes, a guy who doesn’t know any better and goes ahead and interprets the Djenne terra cottas in the Sahel show according to my own dreams and desires.

    I worry that you’re right, that all I say is just baloney. That line of Bonnefoy’s about mirages on the horizon of history is pretty convincing/disturbing to me.

    I don’t want to claim to be speaking about the Djenne terra cottas as a sculptor the way Bonnefoy speaks about the work of all kinds of artists as a poet. Bonnefoy’s thinking is intricate and rigorous, way beyond me—but he’s also modest/humble: he talks about simply calling “into question the conceptual discourse, which comes so naturally to our lips, so as to replace it with another way of speaking about—or speaking with—works.” At moments in the exhibition, I felt the terra cottas were speaking to me.

    I mentioned Nicole Eisenman’s first sculptures in our discussion. I think the connection between them and, particularly, the Djenne terra cotta in the permanent collection at the Met is real/tangible/NOT just a fantasy of mine—though Eisenman’s work has a very different tone: it’s sassy, defensive: the work of a young artist kind of outside the culture she’s kind of in. There are no layers of irony in the Met’s Djenne piece: it’s pure/whole-hearted emotion.

    There was one kind of spectacularly crafted clay piece (or fragment of a clay piece/figure), but it was the plainer pieces that moved me. They seemed to have been kind of mass-produced according to some kind of formula. They MIGHT have come out of Andy Warhol’s factory.

    But back to your comment about scariness, Garth. I don’t know which pieces you were thinking of—don’t know why you found them scary. There is some sense in which I find all sculpture scary. Maybe that’s why I’ve accumulated so many books over time. Books/knowledge make/s sculpture less frightening: most books at least try to make everything less frightening. (Good books make things more scary.) But many of the Djenne terra cottas seem to have been made in response to a specific kind of fear. There’s talk about fear of disease, fear of climate change (the encroaching Sahara)—but the really interesting thing to me is that the figures seem at once to embody this fear AND to offer some reprieve/consolation. Maybe the least complex, kind of anthill-like, kneeling figures with tiny heads and little tiny blobs and curlicues that might be evidence of disease or evidence of scarification are disturbing, but they’re also delightfully beautiful. The larger, slightly darker, seated figures reminded me of seated Buddhas—but the Djenne figures are much more part of our everyday world: they’re not removed from the world the way the Buddhas are. The bodies of the Djenne figures are kind of naturalistic: the heads are kind of abstract/ornamental: they might be monkeys: they might be angels. The figures might embody wisdom: they might be terror-stricken. At least that’s the way I begin to read them. I can’t say what kind of wisdom they might embody, what kind of terror might have stricken them—but I can’t stop looking at them.

    And I seem not to be able to stop writing. It was a staggering exhibition. Lee was right to be very grateful to Alisa LaGamma and everybody at the Met. But maybe the exhibition was too much, too National Geographic. I’m not sure what Brandt was getting at when he talked briefly about one interesting thing sitting on table is enough for him—but we’re all struggling with the question of where sculpture belongs in the world. It was great that Lee brought in his private collection—but that’s not an answer for everybody. Is a museum the only/the proper place for public viewing of sculpture? Old questions. It’s up to Rachael to come up with new answers.

    Brandt Junceau
    Dec 5, 2020, 2:53 PM (9 days ago)

    to Rachael, me, Garth, Lee, Maud

    Jock, Garth, I’m cautious about getting in the middle here but since I am named, I’ll contribute two things, neither quite on the centerline of discussion.

    Re the thing on the table, I had meant to say I’m very many times quite content with the isolation of things as museum-presented. I find dislocation, disfiguration and ruin the ordinary state of things, time allowing, so I take the isolation of things in vitrines wherever they came from, whoever made them as all but normative, if not best-case. Therefore I’m all but a tourist in any museum. Even the things I know best I am aware that I know rather too little, and not as they were and what-for. I don’t think life will have it any other way. No object has tomorrow, and none us have the past.

    Second, as to fear of the art object, I can run away with that, probably to one side of the conversation altogether: I adore fear in the experience of visual art. It’s an integral part of some (if not quite all) of the things I love best. Awe is a an articulate word for the feeling at a less stricken point in the spectrum, but I have simple fear of the Apollo from Veii. The Apollo is superlative, but general case, find any good image of any kind rather strange. For me, personally (not to define things for others), strange is the starting point. Without strange, I’m not interested, and working, if I don’t have it, I start over.

    So I am scared of sculpture, and don’t hesitate to question it (wherever/whoever it came from) from where I come from, as we all must, without an alternative.

    Garth Evans
    Dec 5, 2020, 6:06 PM (9 days ago)

    to Rachael, me, Lee, Maud, Brandt

    Jock, (Brandt)

    How to respond, how to answer? I am at a loss. I frequently am. Sometime I am just overwhelmed by a sense of my ignorance and stupidity.

    I appreciate that you were/are or seem to have been able to come to the work in the Sahel show at the Met. as one sculptor looking at the work of others, without the inhibition, self doubt and reservations that clouded my responses.

    I could not help but feel intimidated by the awareness that those objects came from a context – a time, place and culture about which I know almost nothing. I am envious of your ability to set that awareness and, it seems, respond, to the objects as if they were made yesterday in New York, or somewhere that is not too unfamiliar, not too distant or strange.

    What can I say?

    I should not need to defend my experience yet I feel that it is being questioned – you seem to imply that, in our discussion, I was unwilling to articulate my more honest, immediate and direct responses to the objects (except when I said I found some of them scary). I would ask you to understand that the reason I could not do this is the fact that the objects are a mystery to me. They are all a mystery, but ones I responded to most, the scary ones, felt like ghosts. And there was/is my problem – I don’t believe in ghosts. I think they are a projection, a misinterpretation of phenomena, a misreading of things. In short, I am/was lost.

    The discussion ended with you, Lee and, I think, Brandt all agreeing that some of the objects embodied something essential to human experience, something that transcends cultures and time and it is this that enables them to carry such a profound impact even though we know so little about the context from which they come. I think this is a wonderful concept and wish I could fully embrace it, but it is bit too romantic, it requires a bit too much faith and I find the skeptic in me beginning to smirk. I find myself asking, wanting to ask, what is this “essential” thing and how do these objects embody it?

    I believe I have told you before that as a child I used to try to visualize the shape of the soul – I no longer do that. I no longer believe that we have a separate organ that resides within us and is eternal.

    Well, there is more to be said, there always is so I will leave it there for now – I have to go and help make dinner!

    Best, Garth.


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