‘Warriors and Mothers’ Met Exhibit Gives Found Sculptures Their Day
If a dozen masterpiece Renaissance sculptures, made in an unknown and wildly unorthodox style, suddenly turned up in the Italian countryside, the find would make the news. When the equivalent of such a discovery occurred in the early 1970s, however, it went all but unreported because the sculptures were from Africa, and only some startled scholars and collectors took note. Now, more than 40 years on, the news finally hits New York with the arrival of “Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art” at the Metropolitan Museum, one of the great sculpture shows of the season.
Here’s how the story began. In Paris in 1972, the gallery owner Hélène Kamer, who specialized in African art, made a routine call on a Malian dealer who was in town to display his wares. Among his items for sale was a spectacular wood-carved female figure, majestic but weatherworn — surface erosion made it look as if it were wrapped in bandages — and of a type Ms. Kamer couldn’t place. The dealer was tight-lipped about its source but said he could get more.
He did. By the summer of 1973, he had delivered 12 figures and some information: They had been made by the Mbembe (m-BEM-beh) living in southeastern Nigeria, near the border of Cameroon. The religious tradition that had produced the work had been abandoned under colonialism. The sculptures, when he came across them, had been moldering away unattended.