Saturday, November 12, 2011

African epiphany

I tried to catch up with some of the exhibitions I don't want to miss at the Met today. The main event was "Heroic Africans," which brought tears to my eye. Tears of joy at beauty? Not only. My heart often skips a beat when it encounters a thing of beauty but this was somehow different. I felt a strong sense of something like gratitude - something like the one I sometimes feel about some wonderful cultural development that makes me think how lucky to be alive when this finally happened - and a sense of recognition. The pleasure I'm sure I've cited Elaine Scarry for naming before, of correcting an error of aesthetic perception, when you get something whose beauty you could not before see. But it was more than that, too, since it's African art, a category I suspect I may have used with invisible scare quotes before: no longer. (The Times review promised just this epiphany.) I'm limited to images from the Times review (at least until I can get the catalog on sale!) so I can just urge you to go see. The 12th-15th century terra cotta Yoruba heads - the one above isn't even the most interesting, and no 2-d picture can capture the depth of these sculptures - are compelling the way Noh masks are. A whole series of Akan figures radiated enlightenment the way Cambodian Buddhist head do, and others, their heads lifted upward, eyes, still closed, enjoying some celestial vision, were rapturous like nothing I've ever seen. And that was just the first room! Wonders like the Chokwe mask at top of this post still awaited...

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