Art And Oracle

Exhibitions are no longer straightforward enterprises in which one simply considers the selection of items and the manner of their display. They now entail an associated publication, special events for scholars and collectors, outreach for the general public and schoolchildren, websites, and specialty items for the gift shop. Even more was demanded of “Art and Oracle: Spirit Voices of Africa,” curated by Alisa LaGamma. Because it was the first major exhibition of African arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to be displayed outside the Rockefeller Wing, it carried special importance and responsibility. Fortunately, it succeeded on all counts and received solid reviews from all sides.

Although exhibition websites have become commonplace, “Art and Oracle” was also funded to develop an interactive site (found through <>), which, in the end, actually had more information than either the exhibition or its small catalogue. The online publication included essays and photographs from scholars at the University of the Witwatersrand in addition to the catalogue essay by John Pemberton III. Surely another first for the Metropolitan was the formal opening of the exhibition with a Yoruba invocation by Dr. Wande Abimbola, university professor and babalawo, or Ifa diviner.

There were several other innovative aspects to this exceptional show, starting with an “introductory room” in which a large Kongo nkisi nkondi was surrounded by depictions of divination arts from around the world. This comparative element served to introduce the museum viewer to divination’s central position in all cultures, not only African cultures, and was continued throughout the exhibition. In part it reflected the origins of this project, which was developed in collaboration with Lorenz Homberger at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich for “Orakel,” an enormous presentation of divination systems world wide. While many pieces from that show were incorporated here, most of the 140 items in “Art and Oracle” were selected by LaGamma from public and private collections.

Entering the exhibition proper, one immediately noticed the absence of sterile, stark white walls. A key piece in each thematic section was highlighted by being placed on a gold pedestal that contrasted nicely with the muted green walls and cases. Whether or not this coding device worked consciously on viewers, it struck me as an excellent idea. One also appreciated the large expanse of the gallery, which was only partially partitioned at a few points. Several large masquerades and carved figures were placed, unenclosed, on pedestals. This openness allowed visitors to crisscross, view, and review, within and among sections–which they will do no matter how much designers have attempted to direct them. The fluid plan also enhanced the inherent theme, the integrative role of divination systems in African societies. In other words, any divisions between ethnic groups and types of divination quickly evaporate under careful study.

If one took a clockwise turn after the introductory room, the first section was “Oracular Sculpture: Figurative Divination Instruments,” which presented a broad survey of sculptures associated with diviners. The different “faces” of divination were apparent with the serene Baule couple and the truly enigmatic Kafigeledjo divination figure of the Senufo (which appears on the catalogue’s cover). This section also immediately made one aware of the exceptional quality of pieces selected for this exhibition. The artistry which serves African diviners was truly inspiring.

The next point of emphasis, “Visual Metaphors: Ifa Divination Instruments,” featured several exceptional divination tappers, bowls, and trays of the Yoruba. Most important was the Ulmer Museum’s Ifa tray dating from the seventeenth century–the earliest African sculpture preserved in the West.

Divination baskets and gourds, mostly from the Chokwe and Songye, contained collections of natural and artificial objects such as enigmatic miniature carvings of humans. These were the focus of “Visual Commentaries: Sets of Divination Signs.” After being shaken in their containers, these intriguing objects’ resultant relationships are interpreted by the diviner. Movement was also important in “Dynamic Devices: Kinetic Oracles.” Here we found objects which are animated by the diviner, such as the unique, expandable Pende instrument, the Kuba “friction oracles,” and systems in which animal agents’ movements are interpreted, as with the famous mouse oracle of the Baule.

Objects presented in the next section, “Invoking the Spirits: Musical Devices,” served to underscore the exhibition’s subtitle, “Spirit Voices of Africa.” This critical inclusion of sounding instruments reminded us that the visual arts of divination are not always mute and that oracular messages come to the diviner in acoustic as well as visual and kinetic form. This aspect of divination is still too little studied.

“Iconography of Divination: Monuments of Divine Insight” brought together diverse works not directly related to divination but which nonetheless testified to its centrality in the culture. A Chokwe chair and Yoruba door (the latter by Olowe of Ise) incorporated divination objects in their decoration. Also of significance were the spectacular life-sized “divination portraits” of two Dahomean kings.

At the edge of this section, a video monitor set in the wall ran very short excerpts from videos of diviners and divination sessions recorded among the Dogon, Luba, Yaka, and Yoruba. At this point, one could choose to exit the exhibition through a small shop.

Staying within the show, we next encountered “Empowering the Individual: Diviners’ Prescriptions,” which focused on amulets and other paraphernalia that clients, advised by oracular revelations, would obtain for their well-being. A number of small protective shrine images from west and central African peoples were also displayed. Here, as throughout the exhibition, wall texts reminded us of the efficacy of art: beauty gets things done! The “final” section was devoted to “Emblems of Enlightenment and Power: Diviners’ Insignias.” High points were the beaded regalia of Yoruba and Luba diviners.

This presentation was successful for the basic reasons that extraordinary pieces were well displayed following a clear theme. In addition to being simply an excellent exhibition on an important topic involving African arts, “Art and Oracle” was distinguished by several innovative elements. The comparative dimension troubled some, but I think it provided an important comment. Certainly African arts can stand alone, but they need not be viewed in isolation. The comparative pieces also served to break down the “us/them” dichotomy by which others have “magic” but we have “religion.” Divination systems were and still are present in all human cultures. Nevertheless, the approach at the Metropolitan risked a perception of comparing contemporary Africa with “ancient” Greece, China, and so on. There was also the dilemma of Egypt seemingly being placed outside Africa.

Thought-provoking exhibitions also raise questions about what might have been. My wish list includes a more direct use of the comparative perspective suggested by the inclusion of non-African material; for example, the striking presence of a sixteen-unit base in Yoruba Ifa and Chinese I Ching divination systems might have been discussed. Islamic divinatory traditions have affected various African systems, but nothing was noted about those. One might also want some reference to the divination systems throughout the African Diaspora, but that will have to be the subject of yet another exhibition.

The breadth of “Art and Oracle” underscored the centrality of divination on the continent. Little occurs in African societies without the consultation of non-ordinary knowledge obtained through divination, and divinatory texts and apparatus really do provide summaries of cultures’ epistemologies. There is nothing that is not touched by divination.

As the Metropolitan’s first major exhibition of non-Western arts presented outside the Rockefeller Wing, “Art and Oracle” was a noteworthy event on several levels, and Alisa LaGamma deserves high praise. One can only hope that the museum’s own diviners recognize these auspicious signs and that the arts of Africa will be allowed out more often!

The companion catalogue (80 pp., 5 b/w & 50 color photos, $19.95 softcover), with an essay by John Pemberton III, is published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Harry N. Abrams, New York.

PHILIP M. PEEK is chair of the Anthropology Department at Drew University. He continues to write on African systems of divination and edit the Encyclopedia of African Folklore.