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"African Shields: Art, Power and Identity"
2002-08-26 until 2002-03-02
Neuberger Museum of Art
Purchase, NY, USA

The Neuberger Museum of Art opens African Shields: Art, Power and Identity, an exhibition that brings together a selection of fifteen outstanding examples of African shields that date from the 19th to 20th centuries. The works were created by artists from 13 different cultures in the present-day nations of Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia. Curated by Christa Clarke, Ph.D., the Neuberger Museumís Curator of African Art, the exhibition presents works in diverse media, including wood, wicker, hide and fiber that embody an astonishing range of creative approaches to this genre.

The Neuberger Museum is the first U.S. art museum to present an exhibition devoted to African shields; it will be on display through March 2, 2003. Although shields were among the earliest objects to enter the collections of ethnographic museums in the West, their artistic significance has long been overlooked in favor of the more familiar masks and figural sculpture from Africa. This exhibition reflects the Neubergerís on-going commitment to presenting a broad and inclusive portrait of Africaís cultural heritage, and highlights both the artistry of African shields as well as the political and social significance of their use and creation, states Dr. Clarke.

Admired for their form and craftsmanship, African shields serve in multiple capacities as defensive weaponry in warfare, emblems of status and rank, and accessories in dance performances. Their creation and use has an ancient history in Africa, recorded as early as the 6th century B.C. by the Greek artist Exekias, who painted an image of Ethiopian warriors bearing shields on a classical amphora. Shields were originally designed to offer protection during combat and their divergent forms developed in response to different military practicalities. The size, shape and material of the shield was often determined by its specific use in battle, with small, lightweight shields offering greater mobility for close combat and large, weighty shields providing more substantial protection during ground battles. Distinct patterns and designs on the shields marked social and ethnic affiliation and heralded an individualís rank and status on the battlefield. In addition to their use in combat, shields were also worn during important initiation and funeral ceremonies or employed as a valuable economic and political commodity. In all of these contexts, shields were regarded as highly visible emblems of power and identity, communicating important social and political information through aesthetic display.

As an art form, the shield offers an intriguing play between its fundamentally sculptural qualities as a three-dimensional object and the two-dimensional nature of its relatively flat surface. African artists employ diverse media and techniques for practical purposes and visual effect. Animal hide, frequently chosen for its durability and strength, is shaped with burls and grooves into strongly sculptural patterns. Wicker, a lightweight material that is easily worked, allows an exploration of different weaving techniques whose intricacy may be further embellished with pigment. Wood, solid yet light, may be sculpted into a smooth, rounded surface or carved with low relief designs. In varying combinations of material, shape and decoration, African shields seamlessly integrate physical, symbolic and aesthetic power.

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