"Heroes": Principles of African Greatness 2: Legends—Replaying Africa’s Past/Future

Join us for the 2nd of 7 dispatches from "Heroes," exploring artworks from the National Museum of African Art’s permanent collection that tell the story of key heroic principles and personages in Africa’s arts and history, through art, biography, quotes, interviews, and music.

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness Exhibit Entryway (2019) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

A long-term permanent collection installation at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art.  


Curated by Kevin D. Dumouchelle

Heroes Exhibit Banner (2019) by Sakinya Washington and Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Be your best. This is the quest that the greatest of heroes model for us. Through their journeys, struggles, and triumphs, exceptional individuals exemplify values that we celebrate in tales of heroic accomplishment—epics that outlast heroes themselves. Africa’s history abounds with such tales.

Equestrian Sculpture (2019) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Part 2: Legends—Replaying Africa’s Past/Future

Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.
—Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961

Heroes Series 2 (2021-01-07) by Kevin DumouchelleSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

 Heroes and Artist of Part 2 (2:40)

Comic Books in the Heroes Exhibit (2019) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Through a mix of fiction, fantasy, and fact, the entries in this dispatch from Heroes point the way toward a reassuring reading—that Africa’s rich past can fuel an even more incredible future. 

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness - Dispatch 2 Themes (2021-03-28) by Marc BretzfelderSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Each principal in Heroes is represented by an artwork and a specific historic African person who embodies the value expressed in the selected work. In this second dispatch we explore art and heroes who are Defenders, whose achievement  are Legendary, whose acts are Reassuring, and some who are even Superpowered.

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Archers and Brass Figurines (2019) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

The artists and heroes assembled here draw on the power of imagination, both as a reflex to injustice, but also as a means of envisaging, and enacting, a new and better world.

Staff finial with female rider (Early to mid-19th century) by Bamana artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Defender

Do not cross this woman warrior. 

Female Rider

Bamana Artist
Vicinity of Bougouni, Sikasso region, Mali
Staff finial with female rider
Early to mid-19th century
Iron
Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn to the Smithsonian Institution in 1966, 85-19-1

The rider wears a hat similar to those worn by important persons in the Mande world, including hunters, ritual specialists, and the praise singers and historians known as griots. 

The portrayal of a female rider recalls those women who acquired power and earned respect through force of character, or through their ability as sorcerers. The finial’s imagery is associated with hunters’ associations.

The horse suggests the historical memory of the powerful cavalry that dominated Mali for centuries. 

Like the great queen Sogolon Condé, mother of Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire, she is ready to ride into conflict on behalf of those she protects.

Sogolon Conde - Hero in History Medallion (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Sogolon Condé

The “buffalo woman” became Mother of the Nation.

Late 12th–early 13th century, b. kingdom of Do (likely in southern Mali)
Exiled from the court of husband King Naré Maghann Konaté

Sogolon Condé (2005) by Svetlana AmegankpoéSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

The father of my children was the king Naré Maghan, who, a few years ago sent a good-will embassy to Ghana. My husband is dead but the council has not respected his wishes and my eldest son has been excluded from the throne. The son of my co-wife was preferred before him. I have known exile. The hate of my co-wife has hounded me out of every town and I have trudged along every road with my children . . .

. . . “Do not deceive yourself,” she said to her son. “Your destiny lies not here but in Mali. The moment has come. I have finished my task and it is yours that is going to begin, my son. But you must be able to wait. Everything in its own good time.” . . . 

—Sogolon Condé, in Djibril Tamsir Niane et al, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

· Sogolon was born with kyphosis, giving her a hunched back. Mocked for her appearance, she was known as the “buffalo woman.” 

 · In response to a prophecy that an “ugly woman” would one day bear him a son who would be a great king, Naré Maghann Konaté married Sogolon when she was presented to the court, though he already had a son by his first marriage. 

· Sogolon earned a reputation for fiercely speaking her mind and claiming her rights, and for defending her son, Sundiata, who was was born unable to walk. Through her care—and, in some versions of the epic, through her access to magical powers—she coached her son to walk.


· When the king died and the son by his first marriage took the throne, against the king’s wishes, Sogolon fled with Sundiata to neighboring kingdoms. She secured his education and training, assuring him that he must one day return and claim his rights.  

Equestrian Warrior and Archer (1200/1400) by Inland Niger Delta artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Legendary

They fought against the ravages of time—and won.

Equestrian figure

Inland Niger Delta artist
Djenné, Mopti Region, Mali
13th to 15th century
Ceramic
Museum purchase, 86-12-2

Archer figure

Inland Niger Delta artist
Djenné, Mopti Region, Mali

13th to 15th century
Ceramic
Museum purchase, 86-12-1

Low-fired ceramic figures and fragments such as these have been unearthed since the 1940s at various sites throughout the Inland Niger Delta region, an area that once had highly developed cities. 

These works are among the earliest known surviving art forms in sub-Saharan Africa. By the 15th or 16th century, environmental and political events caused the urban centers of the Delta region to be abandoned, contributing to the demise of the art tradition.

Their elaborate dress suggests ceremonial military attire...

...and the figures may represent warriors who were once allies of the Malian emperor Sundiata Keita (c. 1217–1255)... 

...who lives on in legend, but who also ruled a large swathe of West Africa in historical fact, too.

A brief introduction to Sundiata Keita (2019) by Augustus (Gus) Casely-Hayford and Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Sundiata Keita - Hero in History Medallion (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Sundiata Keita

The Manding Diarra, the Lion of Mali, he brought his people justice, peace, and prosperity.

c. 1217–1255, b. Niani, Guinea

Reigned c. 1230–55 over Mali Empire from Niani

Sundiata (1992) by Daniel WisniewskiSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Sundiata: Lion King of Mali

Daniel Wisniewski
Jacket cover from Sundiata: Lion King of Mali
© 1992 David Wisniewski; used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, all rights reserved

· According to Mande oral traditions, Sundiata, who was born with a disability, learned to walk with the help of his mother, Sogolon, and a blacksmith. 

 · Mocked and forced into exile due to his disability, Sundiata nevertheless returned to unite the Mande-speaking clans to overthrow Sumanguru Kante, the wicked ruler of Sosso who took over the remnants of the Ghana Empire and used dark magic to subject his people.

· Sundiata built a centralized monarchy—the Mali Empire—which, through its control of trans-Saharan trade and gold fields, became one of the wealthiest states of the Muslim world.

Selections from the Heroes Playlist




Rail Band (featuring Mory Kanté and Salif Keita) – “Sunjata”
Lyrics by Mory Kanté, Salif Keita, Djelimady Tounkara, and the Rail Band
Soundiata. RCAM, 1975.
Modern Mande

equestrian and archer amulet figures (19th to early 20th century) by Kotoko artistsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Reassuring

Troubles may yet ride away.

Putchu guinadj (equestrian and archer amulet figures)

Kotoko artists
Hadjer-Lamis or Chari-Baguirmi Regions, Chad, or Far North Region, Cameroon
19th to early 20th century
Copper alloy
Collection of Arnold and Joanne Syrop

Imagine the soothing surface and heft of holding these monumental miniatures in your hand. How might they feel?

Kotoko artists, living in the vicinity of Lake Chad, cast small figures in copper alloy through the lost-wax technique in order to produce personal amulets.

Functioning as protective talismans, they may have once been worn around an owner’s neck or carried by hand or in a small pouch.

Held close to the body, they safeguarded their owners against threats outward, and physical, or inward, in the form of anxiety and mental illness. 

The image of the equestrian and archer recalls a broader history of mounted warfare and exchange throughout the greater Western Sudan...

...an oft-disruptive history to which Kotoko communities were frequently subjected.

A Bornu Rider (1828) by Edward Francis FindenSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

A Bornu Rider Engraving

Edward Francis Finden  
1828 
In Major Dixon Denham and Captain Hugh Clapperton, Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa in the Years 1822, 1823, and 1824 Vol. I. 
 Schomburg Center for Research in Black Center for Research in Black Culture—Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library

Idris Aloma - Hero in History Medallion (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Idris Aloma

Idris Aloma reinforced and renewed a dynasty that would rule for 1,000 years.
 
c. 1546–1603
Reigned c. 1571–1603 over Bornu Empire from Ngazagarmu, Nigeria

Idris Aloma - Principles of African Greatness Intro (2019) by Augustus (Gus) Casely-Hayford and Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

A Bornu Rider (1828) by Edward Francis FindenSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

A lone woman clad in gold might walk [the empire’s roads] with none to fear but God.
—Ibn Fartuwa, chronicler of Idris Aloma’s reign, describing the security of the Bornu Empire, 1576

· Aloma became mai (king) of Bornu during a period of famine and internal strife. 

 · A devout Muslim, Aloma returned from the hajj to Mecca with Turkish muskets and soldiers who helped him build his cavalry. He also built diplomatic alliances with Ottoman and Moroccan rulers.

· Aloma is remembered as a sensible ruler and administrative reformer who—through alliances and adherence to Islamic justice—made Bornu protected, prominent, and prosperous.

Comic Books from Heroes: Principles of African Greatness (2021) by Marc BretzfelderSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Superpowered

Black Panther

Ta-Nehisi Coates
b. 1975, Baltimore, Md,
Works in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Illustrations by Brian Stelfreeze, ©Marvel Worldwide
2016–ongoing; published in New York by Marvel Worldwide
Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art

Until the current moment, in the once narrow world of comic book publishing, Marvel’s King T’Challa from Black Panther appeared to stand alone as the only widely recognized African superhero in the industry. 

Today, however, while T’Challa has been reinvigorated by a new set of stories written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and by global film releases, he also has an increasing number of continental compatriots, as African comics and graphic novels flourish.

Black Panther and many of the additional stories that follow assemble African protagonists, settings, values, and aesthetics through the realm of fiction and graphic design in order to help us imagine a new and improved, Africa-centered future—and present. 

Captain Rugged

Keziah Jones
b. 1968, Lagos, Nigeria
Works in Lagos
2013; published in Bologna, Italy, by Damiani
Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art

Captain Rugged is a Lagos-based superhero fighting greedy local and multinational corporate interests that threaten the city’s disempowered.

Ananiya the Revolutionist

Milumbe Haimbe
b. 1974, Lusaka, Zambia
Works in Toronto, Canada
2013–ongoing
Exhibition prints

Ananiya the Revolutionist is a 17-year old Black female resistance fighter in the Army for the Restoration of Womanhood. She fights against a corporate government that has introduced sex robots capable of replacing the need for female humans.

Crimson

Alastair Brauns
Works in Cape Town, South Africa
2013; published in Cape Town, South Africa by Tank21 Creative
Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art

Crimson focuses on a young woman in South Africa making use of extraordinary abilities to tackle threats, both human and cyborg.

Horsemen: The Book of Olorun

Jiba Molei Anderson
b. 1972, Detroit, Mich.
Works in Chicago, Ill.
2010; published in Chicago by Griot Enterprises
Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art

Horsemen traces the return of the Orishas, Yoruba gods, to help humanity face current dangers.

Kwezi

Loyiso Mkhize
b. 1987, Butterworth, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa
Works in Cape Town, South Africa
2016; published in Cape Town by David Philip Publishers
Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art

Kwezi tells the story of a young, city-dwelling South African superhero challenged to use his great powers for the greater good.

Frantz Fanon - Hero in History Medallion (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Frantz Fanon

He demanded the full recognition of his humanity—and expected that his comrades do the same.
 
1925–1961, b. Fort-de-France, Martinique
Worked in Paris and Algeria

Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo 

Frantz Fanon (2019) by Augustus (Gus) Casely-Hayford and Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Frantz Fanon (1955/1961) by Unknown PhotographerSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

He who is reluctant to recognize me opposes me.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.
—Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

· After serving in the Free French army in World War II, Frantz Fanon studied psychiatry, taking a position in French-ruled Algeria in 1953. There, he witnessed firsthand the traumatic effects of colonial violence on the human psyche.

· In books like Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Fanon analyzed the psychological impacts of colonial rule, framing them as a form of violent domination of the psyche—but also as a set of tools that the colonized could take up and reverse in self-defense.

· Fanon also critiqued many postcolonial governments for their perceived dependence on former colonial powers and failures to build a national consciousness in their people.


· Fanon’s writings were inspirations to a global swathe of anticolonial and liberation movements in the second half of the 20th century—setting the struggle for freedom first in the psyche and the imagination.

Selections from the Heroes Playlist





James Brown – “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”
Lyrics by James Brown and Alfred Ellis
Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud. King Records, 1969.
Funk

Sun Ra & His Arkestra – “Door of the Cosmos”
Lyrics by Sun Ra
Sleeping Beauty. El Saturn Records, 1979.
Avant-garde jazz/Space music

The Weeknd, with Kendrick Lamar – “Pray for Me”
Lyrics by Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd), Adam Feeney, Kendrick Lamar, Martin McKinney
Black Panther: The Album. Top Dawg Entertainment, 2018.
Pop-rap

Credits: Story

Curated by Kevin D. Dumouchelle
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

Story Design by Marc Bretzfelder
Office of the Chief Information Officer
Smithsonian Institution


Photo of Staff finial with female rider, Equestrian figure, and Archer figure, by Franko L. Khoury, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Photo of Putchu guinadj (equestrian and archer amulet figures) by Brad Simpson, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Credits: All media
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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