Beyond compare

Art from Africa in the Bode Museum on Museum Island Berlin

Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

"Beyond Compare" Cover (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

There’s been a special treat awaiting visitors to Berlin’s Museum Island since October 2017 – the exhibition ‘Beyond Compare’ displays superlative works of art from Africa from the Ethnologisches Museum alongside the peerless sculpture collection of the Bode-Museum.

"Beyond Compare" Map of Europe, 2017, From the collection of: Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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"Beyond Compare" Map of Africa and Europe, 2017, From the collection of: Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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As an experiment, pairs of sculptures from the two continents are placed in juxtaposition allowing viewers to draw out possible connections and differences.

"Beyond Compare" Exhibition View (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The exhibition examines the question as to what findings can be drawn from a juxtaposition of pairs of works of art with different cultural histories, takes a new look at conventional classifications of objects as “art” or “ethnographic“ and sheds light on various perspectives of the collection’s own history.

Unvergleichlich: Kunst aus Afrika im Bode-Museum | Bode-Museum | AusstellungstrailerBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The following juxtapositions address the most various aspects of the exhibition in the Bode Museum and invite visitors not only to compare, contrast and interpret the objects, but also to re-examine their own attitudes in making comparisons.

"Beyond Compare": How Does Art Become Art? (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

How Does Art Become Art?

Both of these figures are masterpieces of metal casting, but each expresses that mastery differently. The winged putto balances ingeniously on a shell. Turning on his own axis, he beats out a rhythm on a tambourine. The statuette from Benin is less focused on movement than on a wealth of detail, ornamentation and highly contrasted surface rendering.

Putto with Tambourine, Donatello, 1429, From the collection of: Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Statue of the goddess Irhevbu or of Princess Edeleyo (16th or 17th century) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Kurator Jonathan Fine über Objekte, die zu Kunstwerken werden
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At the time they were made, neither of these sculptures was an autonomous artwork, instead they both formed part of larger compositions used for religious or ritual purposes.

The statuette from the Kingdom of Benin represents the goddess Irhevbu or the Princess Edeleyo and probably formed part a memorial altar or a shrine for the archer Ake, who was worshipped as a god.

The Benin sculpture had probably been in its original African context until 1897, the year when British troops marched into the Kingdom of Benin, plundered the royal palace and sent the king into exile. Many valuable objects were plundered, brought to Britain and sold.

Putto with Tambourine (1429) by DonatelloBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Donatello’s putto was one of a group of six figures crowning the baptismal font of Siena Cathedral. Four of these sculptures are still in place.

In the early twentieth century, both of these works were acquired for what is now the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin on the London art market Donatello’s putto was bought and sold by a number of collectors before its acquisition by Wilhelm Bode, director of the Berlin museums, in 1902.

Statue of the goddess Irhevbu or of Princess Edeleyo (16th or 17th century) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Why does the goddess have two numbers on her back?

The African figure has two codes on its rear: III C 10864 and 9794. The first is the accession number assigned by the museum, meant to clearly identify it within the collection. The second is probably an older number given to it by a dealer.

Donatello’s putto bears the accession number 2653. But the number was not placed on the back of the piece, but on the underside of the shell, where it would be invisible to the viewer.

Showcase (Early 20th century) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

When it was bought, Donatello's sculpture was regarded as a Renaissance masterpiece and treated accordingly. By contrast, the Benin sculpture was treated first and foremost as an ethnological exhibit, so the museum official in charge of it probably thought nothing of marking it with an inscription.

"Beyond Compare": Request for Protection (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Who needs protection?

When we are afraid, we seek protection. To find protection from hunger, war, and disease, people in Europe in the late Middle Ages prayed to a figure type known as the Madonna of Mercy, depicted sheltering the faithful in her cloak. These depictions of the Virgin Mary could be found in many churches, where they were worshipped. The power figure (mangaaka) from the Congo region also served the protection of a community. Equipped with superhuman forces, it was intended to ward off dangers, punish crimes, and cure diseases.

The Virgin of Mercy, from the Church of Our Lady, Ravensburg, Michel Erhart or Friedrich Schramm, c. 1480, From the collection of: Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Mangaaka (Power Figure, nkisi n'kondi) (19th century) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Curator Julien Chapuis on protection seekers
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The mangaaka’s protective power was based on its deterrent force – and on its use of spiritually charged medicinal matter.

This material was installed by a ritual expert in its navel cavity as well as in the chin and head.

When oaths were sworn or agreements of peace were made, nails were driven into the figure. If someone did not hold to an agreement thus sealed, the mangaaka would wield its power against this person.

Restoration of the mangaaka (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The restorers Eva Ritz and Christina Siegert on the materials of the mangaaka and its 20 years ago restoration.

Mangaaka (Power Figure, nkisi n'kondi) (19th century) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The creation of these power figures in the 19th century can be interpreted as a response to the brutal colonization carried out by the major European powers during their ‘race for Africa’. They were supposed to help maintain justice and order.

The Virgin of Mercy, from the Church of Our Lady, Ravensburg (c. 1480) by Michel Erhart or Friedrich SchrammBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Virgin of Mercy was probably part of an altarpiece before which worshippers kneeled. Mary is supernaturally large compared to those seeking protection under her cloak, and this emphasizes her importance and the hope placed in her.

Mary acts towards the faithful as the caring Mother of God. With a gesture of love, the Virgin spreads her cloak over those she is protecting like a hen taking her chicks under her wings.

"Beyond Compare": Order and Justice (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Order
and Justice

Order and justice form central themes in all human societies. The frieze from Gröningen (Saxony-Anhalt) was part of a depiction of the Last Judgement, which according to Christian belief would bring about final justice. Christ faces the viewer frontally, fixing us with his eyes. The African mask also uses eye contact as a warning and regulating force. The mask was activated in a ritual that warned against breaking the rules, and punished those who did so.

West Tribune from the Monastery Church of Gröningen, Unknown, c.1150–60, From the collection of: Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Ngil Mask (19th century) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Kurator Julien Chapuis über Fries und Maske
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West Tribune from the Monastery Church of Gröningen (c.1150–60) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

From the early Middle Ages on, depictions of the Last Judgement commonly appeared on the main western portals and entrances of churches.

Aus dem Evangelium des Matthäus
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Every time believers entered the church they were reminded that one day they would have to account for their actions before Christ, the judge of the world. Paradise awaited the blessed, Hell the damned.

Ngil Mask (19th century) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Among the Fang people in Cameroon and Gabon the Ngil society dealt with identifying and punishing evildoers well into the 20th century. Using terrifying masks the society carried out a kind of inquisition.

The masks, worn during dances, warned against defying societal order. At the same time they symbolized the Ngil society’s rights of jurisdiction. The mask resembles a skull, visually emphasizing the fact that certain offences were punishable by death.

"Beyond Compare": Motherhood? (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Motherhood?

Today images of mothers with children are viewed in Europe as classic representations of intimate bonding. In other societies and periods, however, depictions of motherhood have meant different things. The pfemba, for example, played an important role in fertility rituals north of the Congo River. They were also used to reinforce claims to power or as links to the world of the ancestors. The figural group of the Madonna and Child reminds viewers of the incarnation of God and also alludes to the Passion this small child will suffer.

Seated Virgin and Child, Michel Erhart, c. 1480/85, From the collection of: Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Mother and Child Figure pfemba (19th century) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Kurator Julien Chapuis über Darstellungen einer Mutter mit Kind
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Seated Virgin and Child (c. 1480/85) by Michel ErhartBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The statue of Mary must have appeared even more life-like at the time of its creation.

The wood-brown sculpture we see today was once richly painted in different colours. In contrast to the vividness of their clothing, the delicate colour of the skin on their faces and hands emphasized the close bond between the mother and the child.

Seated Virgin by Michel Erhart (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The restorer Marion Böhl on Michel Erhart's Seated Virgin.

Mother and Child Figure pfemba (19th century) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The pfemba figure has probably also lost its original colour. In the context of their ritual use, such figures were often coated with layers of mpemba (white kaolin clay) and tukula (red redwood soil).

The white colour represented the ancestors’ bones, the red their blood. European collectors later polished these figures, stripping them of an important layer of meaning.

"Beyond Compare": Mythical Heroes (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Mythical
Heroes

Both ‘heroes’ in this comparison are important role models, Chibinda Ilunga for the Chokwe (Angola/Democratic Republic of the Congo), Christ for followers of Christianity. The muscular figure of Christ visually illustrates the incarnation of God in Jesus, who had to suffer for the salvation of mankind. According to legend, Chibinda Ilunga was the founder of the Kingdom of Lunda and the royal ancestor of the Chokwe. This figure depicts him as the archetypical strong ruler, full of power and energy.

King and Culture Hero Chibinda Ilunga, Unknown, 19th century, From the collection of: Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Christ in Distress (around 1525) by Hans LeinbergerBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Curator Chulien Chapuis on the juxtaposition of the two 'heroes'
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King and Culture Hero Chibinda Ilunga (19th century) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The African sculpture expresses power directly, through its severe composition, the arms held out in front, and the overly large hands...

...and feet. Following the myth, Chibinda Ilunga is depicted as a hunter carrying a rifle, an ammunition pouch, and a knife. A tortoise shell, a staff, and an antelope horn bring luck to the hunter,

while three guardian spirits on his head grant him supernatural powers. The long beard and striking headdress identify him as a king.

Christ in Distress (around 1525) by Hans LeinbergerBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Hans Leinberger, working around 450 years earlier, conveyed the power of the Christian saviour in a very different manner. Only the crown of thorns, placed on his head in scorn by the Roman soldiers who mistreated and mocked him, identifies the exhausted man as Christ.

The figure’s muscular body, reminiscent of characters like Hercules or Atlas from Classical mythology, thus appears all the more surprising. The Son of God is prepared to take the suffering of the whole world on his own shoulders. It is this that gives the Christian saviour his power.

"Beyond Compare": Virtuosity and Authenticity (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Virtuosity
and Authenticity

Both these objects set animals and humans in motion. The headdress, which unites a roan antelope, an aardvark and a pangolin into a single creature, revealed its full effect when worn in agricultural rites associated with clearing the fields, accompanied by music and shouting. The extravagant work of silver of Diana on the Stag, by contrast, served as an entertainment piece at courtly festivals. The stag and dog were drinking vessels with removable heads.

Diana on the Stag, Paulus Ättinger, c. 1610, From the collection of: Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Tyi Wara or Sogoni Kun Headdress (19th or early 20th century) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Curator Julien Chapuis on headdress and drinking game
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In the creation myth of the Bamana of Mali the primordial being tyi wara, who took the form of an animal, taught agriculture to mankind. In his honour people wore antelope headdresses and performed a were danced at rituals associated with the clearing of the fields.

Tyi Wara sculptures are bound to the woven caps worn by dancers as part of their costumes. The sculpture in Berlin is probably a headdress for a related ritual, sogoni kun.

It skilfully combines the horns of the antelope with other animals of significance in the Bamana culture: the lower portion is reminiscent of an aardvark, while the middle part of the body resembles a pangolin.

The figure of a woman on the front identifies the mask as female.

Ci Wara Dance Ceremony (2015)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

A Ci (Tyi) Wara dance ceremony in a Bamana village in the Saro region.

Diana on the Stag (c. 1610) by Paulus ÄttingerBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The second object portrays Diana, the ancient goddess of the hunt, riding on a leaping stag. As a ‘drinking game’ it was filled with wine, and drinkers had to lift it to drain the cup.

Similar table decorations with Diana on a stag contained wind-up mechanisms allowing them to move across the table top.

Diana and Stag Automaton in Motion (2014)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

A Diana deer group from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is set in motion again after 200 years of standstill.

Videos of tyi wara masks in motion or automata in action reveal the extent to which placing these objects in static museum displays alienates them from their original functions.

"Beyond Compare": Opposite or Complementary (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Opposite
or Complementary?

Two figures stand back to back. The unlikely pairing of female beauty and crumbling bones presents a moral message: youth passes, beauty fades, in death we are all equal. As a ‘memento mori’ (‘remember that you must die’), it warns the viewer to lead a virtuous life. The Luba figure from the Congo, by contrast, depicts a man and a woman in balance, as two parts of an ideal and positive whole.

Memento Mori Sideview, Ascribed to Chicart Bailly, c. 1520, From the collection of: Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Two Human Figures with Cup (19th or early 20th century) by "Warua-Master"Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Curator Julien Chapuis on the couples
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Opposite or Complementary? | Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Memento Mori Front (c. 1520) by Ascribed to Chicart BaillyBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The young woman on the ivory carving smiles seductively at us.

With her right hand she lifts a veil and points directly at her genitals with her finger. The gesture could hardly be more clear. She embodies sinful indecency.

The carving, made of ivory, was clearly a luxury object. It was presumably originally owned by a member of the nobility or of a wealthy merchant family. Whether the owner valued the piece as a ‘memento mori’ or perhaps more for its depiction of female nakedness remains an open question.

Two Human Figures with Cup, Woman (19th or early 20th century) by "Warua-Master"Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The female figure on the African double image also wears no clothing. Her rounded belly appears to carry an unborn child, and her head is slightly bowed. Nothing in her appearance suggests seduction. The position of her hands, laid on her breasts, is instead a classical gesture referring to the Luba belief that certain women carried the secrets of the kingdom in their bodies.

Two Human Figures with Cup (19th or early 20th century) by "Warua-Master"Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The objects in this pairing appear particularly similar at first glance. Both consist of two human figures standing back to back. The relationship between the two figures, however, could hardly be more different.

The Luba object presents two elements that harmoniously complement each other. The female and the male stand as equally valuable parts of a larger whole. Women were respected as the messengers and advisors of kings in the Luba kingdom, and seen as divine agents by the male rulers.

Memento Mori Sideview (c. 1520) by Ascribed to Chicart BaillyBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The European ivory object, on the other hand, uses the comparison of two antithetical concepts as a warning to its owner.

It can be read as an expression of Western modes of thought influenced by Christianity, focusing on sharp contrasts rather than reciprocal complementation.

"Beyond Compare" Cover (2017)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

These masterpieces of African Art will be on public display in the Bode Museum until the completion of the Humboldt Forum. In all, the exhibition comprises 22 juxtaposed pairs and 6 groups, displayed over three floors.

In the accompanying app ‘Beyond Compare’ you can find out interesting and exciting background information for each pair and each group, exploring contexts of art history, cultural history and ethnology.

The exhibition ‘Beyond Compare’ is generously supported by the Kuratorium Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Concept / Editing: Jutta Dette, Astrid Alexander
Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt

Based on: Beyond compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum. Catalogue of the Exhibition at the Bode Museum, Oct. 27, 2017 for the time being. Published for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin by Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine, Paola Ivanov. With contributions from Antje Akkermann, Andrew Sears, Christine Seidel. Edition Braus, Berlin 2017.

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

www.smb.museum
Bode-Museum

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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