What makes a hero and how should we model ourselves against their guiding principles? These questions underpin the exhibition, Heroes: Principles of African Greatness, currently on at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.
The show "expresses the National Museum of African Art’s commitment to the dignity, complexity and universally accessible excellence of African art history," explains Kevin Dumouchelle, the curator of the exhibition. "It stands as a testament to the museum’s commitment to the telling of unique, compelling and specific historical African stories. The artworks in “Heroes” invite us to imagine our roles in building a new future. This is actually the first project I’ve been able to develop from start to finish here, and I’m thrilled to be able to share it."
The theme isn’t new. In September 2011, The Metropolitan Museum (MET) opened Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures, a show that presented classic depictions—from the twelfth century through to the early twentieth—of legendary African leaders and other exalted rulers including the famous ‘Bangwa Queen’ figure, Edo uhunmwun elao ancestral memorial heads, and Kuba ndop royal ancestor figures.
As stated by Alisa LaGamma, the curator of Heroic Africans, “Familiarity with inspirational leaders from Africa is largely limited to those who came to international prominence for their contemporary accomplishments, such as Nelson Mandela, or as heroic figures, like Kwame Nkrumah, engaged in struggles against European colonialism. Our inability to name and envision specific African leaders from earlier times is an accident of history. Prior to colonialism, regional histories were transmitted orally from one generation to the next… Related sculptural genres developed within many of these contexts, giving concrete and enduring form to some of the protagonists of those accounts. "Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures" examines the visual translation of specific subjects into sculptural forms.”
"The stories that I tell must have a different sort of purpose from the artist in the Western world…and art, in that instance, becomes so meaningful both to the artist and to the consumers of that art, because you do not just depend on them to read your books, you even have to live a life that they can emulate."—Ken Saro Wiwa, writer, television producer and environmental activist
Just as in historical times, through art, today’s artists tell stories of the complexities of a given society. Where Heroes: Principles of African Greatness deviates from the ‘heroic’ theme is in its celebration, not only of past leaders from pre-colonial times but of today’s heroes, named heroes that exhibit the core values of leadership—justice, integrity, generosity, and empathy.
Featuring fifty artworks made by more than forty classic and contemporary artists from fifteen African countries, Heroes focuses on works created by or personifying African heroes. It tells the stories of struggle and triumph that many iconic African figures have overcome and achieved.
Drawing from the permanent collection of the National Museum of African Art, each work is paired with an individual of African descent who embodies the featured value expressed in the selected work. Heroes aims to change the way visitors look at African art, to challenge viewers to consider the horrors and hopes at work in the continent’s history, and to inspire us all to be our best selves.
Below, we feature some of the combinations on display at the show, combinations that tell the unique stories of key African figures and the heroic principles they embody.
Ousmane Sow’s raw and epic sculptures depict icons of liberty and freedom including this portrait, ‘Toussaint Louverture et la Vieille Esclave’ (Toussaint Louverture and the Elderly Slave). François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture was a French general and leader of the early nineteenth century Haitian Revolution. He was the great liberator of Haiti, instrumental in ending slavery in the region.
In his depiction of Louverture, Sow adopted an additive technique in which he gradually built the figure with mixtures of glue, soil and recycled or found substances. With his hands, he applied this sticky, homemade mixture onto a framework of metal, straw and jute sacking. This outer mixture hardened to form the solid exterior of the figure. Sow mixed pigments into the mixture as he worked, allowing colours to become part of the form itself.
In the sculpture, Sow emphasises Louverture’s compassion and his determination to end slavery depicting strength in the military uniform while also conveying heroism through Louverture’s relationship with the elderly slave—lifting her from the ground.
Huda Sha’arawi (23 June 1879 – 12 December 1947) was an Egyptian feminist leader and founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union. At a time when women in Egypt were confined to the house and freedoms and movement restricted, Sha’arawi organised public lectures for Egyptian women, teaching then academic subjects and empowering them to break out of the confines of their homes. In 1922, she famously removed her face veil in public for the first time, a symbolic moment in feminist history.
‘The Blue Bra Girls’ sculpture by Egyptian artist Ghada Amer, takes its name from the 2011 Reuters photograph of a veiled young woman whose blue bra was exposed as she was dragged and beaten during protests in Tahrir Square. The work is a highly polished stainless steel egg-shaped openwork sculpture depicting outlines of five nude female figures with their hair intertwined. The work is a tribute to all the women who have risked standing up for what they believe in.
Among the many kingdoms (fondom) of the Cameroon Grassfields, the central fon (chief or king) and a number of secret societies are responsible for the social rule of each kingdom. In close counsel with Kwifor, Ngwerong, Mfu and Takumbeng (the social organisations of village elders, nobles, princes and elites) the fon must maintain spiritual and social order and is responsible for peaceful collaboration between neighbouring villages.
King Ibrahim Mbouombouo Njoya (c. 1860 – c. 1933) was the 17th fon of the Bamum people in western Cameroon. He succeeded his father Nsangu, and ruled from 1886 or 1887 until his death in 1933. Prior to King Njoya’s reign, history and knowledge were passed down orally from elders to the next generation to ensure continuity. Recognising the risk of critical knowledge being lost or the integrity of that information being corrupted, King Njoya is credited with the development of written Bamum script.
Commonly viewed as maternity figures, phemba figures are used to symbolise the fertility, growth, wealth, spiritual power and creativity of the entire Yombe community. Phemba figures are a symbol of the future growth of the Yombe.
Queen Nzinga (c. 1583 – 17 December 1663) embodies the principles of communal growth and care depicted in phemba figures. She ruled over the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of the Mbundu people for 37 years and is said to have been instrumental in fighting for the freedom of her kingdom against the Portuguese who fought to control the slave trade in modern-day Angola. She is remembered for her political and diplomatic wisdom and her brilliant military tactics. She fought to maintain the freedom of her ‘children’, the people of her kingdom.
"There is no story that is not true."
—Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Singiti figures are idealised and stylised depictions of deceased Hemba leaders. It is believed that the chief’s spirit inhabited the singiti figure and that ancestors are able to influence the success and wellbeing of villagers and of the community. As such, prayers were directed to figures and sacrifices of chicken blood offered.
Patrice Émery Lumumba (2 July 1925 – 17 January 1961) was the first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo and is believed to be one of the ‘fathers’ that fought for Congo’s independence from Belgium. He led the Congolese National Movement (MNC) party from 1958 until his assassination. Following his assassination, he was widely seen as a martyr and like past ancestors venerated by singiti figures, Lumumba is seen by many as a Congolese hero worthy of iconic status.