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Altar Head, 16th century, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria. Bronze, copper alloy. Height: 8 1/8 inches University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia: Purchased from W. O. Oldman. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, Image #250922. Photograph by Gary Ombler for Dorling Kindersley.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- This spring the Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting five exhibitions and a series of related programs that feature a broad spectrum of the arts from across the African continent. These exhibitions include historical works of art as well as contemporary fashion, photography, design, and architecture. The centerpiece is Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art, a major exhibition drawn from the collection of the Penn Museum, on view from May 14 through December 4, 2016. It examines the rich artistic heritage of West and Central Africa, and is designed to acquaint visitors with the diverse styles and functions of African art through the act of close looking. 

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Male and Female Figures, c. 1880–1925, Kongo Kingdom, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of the Congo. Ivory. Height: 2 5/8 inches. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia: Received from various sources. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, Image #250919. Photograph by Gary Ombler for Dorling Kindersley.

Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and CEO, Philadelphia Museum of Art, notes: “This season of related exhibitions will offer our visitors a wonderful opportunity to make connections between centuries-old traditions and contemporary artistic practices. We are especially grateful for the loan of a large number of works from the Penn Museum’s world-renowned collection, which will be presented in an exhibition that anchors our celebration of African art.” 

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Reliquary Guardian Figure, 19th or early 20th century, Obamba culture, Gabon. Copper, brass, wood. Height: 19 5/16 inches. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia: Purchased from J. Laporte. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, Image #195502.

Look Again takes advantage of some of the greatest strengths of the Penn Museum’s collection, placing a strong emphasis on process, materials, and ornamentation as well as the understanding that can be gained through an examination of context, function, and provenance. Highlights from the kingdom of Benin include carved ivories and bronzes, among them plaques that once adorned the Oba’s palace, a magnificent architectural complex at the heart of Benin City in present-day Nigeria. Bronzes created as early as the 16th century include commemorative heads, ranging from the very simple to the extremely ornate, that would have been placed on altars. 

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Plaque Depicting Seven Figures, c. 1540–70, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria. Bronze, copper alloy, 18 1/2 x 16 15/16 x 1 9/16 inches. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia: Purchased from W. O. Oldman. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, Image #250995. Photograph by Gary Ombler for Dorling Kindersley.

Many of the works on view are sculptures from Central Africa, including power figures created to strengthen, protect, or heal their users. These works can range in size from small handheld objects to figures of imposing scale. In some cases, nails and blades were inserted into these figures as part of their ritual use. Wooden sculptures originating from West, Central, and South Africa present a wide array of poses and expressions, and some incorporate the figure into functional objects, such as headrests or tools. 

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Altar Head, c. 1848–88, Benin Kingdom,Nigeria. Bronze, copper alloy. Height: 17 5/8 inches. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia: Purchased from W. O. Oldman. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, Image #255381

Art from the Kuba culture (from the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo) includes cloth, made from dyed raffia and other natural fibers showing bold and lively geometric designs, along with carved wooden cups, bowls, and boxes adorned with patterns. The exhibition also features brass weights from present-day Ghana that were used by the Akan peoples to weigh gold. Made through lost-wax casting, they are miniature sculptures of people, animals, objects, and abstract patterns that reflect motifs and proverbs from West Africa. 

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Queen Mother Head, early 17th century–18th century, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria. Bronze, copper alloy. Height: 18 11/16 inches. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia: Purchased from W. O. Oldman. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, Image #250958. Photograph by Gary Ombler for Dorling Kindersley.

The exhibition closes with a display of Kota reliquary figures, from present-day Gabon and Republic of the Congo, which were made to protect bundles of ancestral relics and are distinguished by exquisite applied metalwork. Through the use of an interactive digital program jointly developed by the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Rampant Interactive, and Frederic Cloth, visitors can further explore the individual qualities and intriguing stylistic associations of these works. 

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Doll, late 19th or early 20th century, Zulu culture, South Africa. Raffia, fiber, glass, ceramic, 7 x 2 1/8 inches. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia: Gift of Ernst Anspach. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, Image #243848.

Look Again is curated by Dr. Kristina Van Dyke, noted scholar and curator of African art, and former Director of the Pulitzer Foundation. 

The exhibition is coordinated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by John Vick, Project Assistant Curator.

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Cup, 19th or 20th century, Kuba Kingdom, Bushoong culture, Democratic Republic of Congo. Wood, 7 1/2 x 2 3/8 inches. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia: Purchased from J. F. G. Umlauff. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, Image #243913

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Figurative Cup, late 19th or early 20th century, Wongo culture, Democratic Republic of Congo. Wood, 7 1/2 x 2 3/8 inches. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia: Purchased from J. F. G. Umlauff. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, Image #243913

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Figure of an Official or Attendant, early 17th century–18th century, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria. Bronze, copper alloy, 25 3/16 x 8 7/16 x 7 5/8 inches. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia: Purchased from W. O. Oldman. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, Image #250923. Photograph by Gary Ombler for Dorling Kindersley.

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Fang Head, Artist/maker unknown, African, Gabon, Fang. Wood, 10 7/8 x 5 x 6 inches (27.6 x 12.7 x 15.2 cm) Wood Base: 8 × 6 × 5 inches (20.3 × 15.2 × 12.7 cm) Stone Base: 6 × 6 1/2 × 6 1/2 inches (15.2 × 16.5 × 16.5 cm). 1950-134-202. The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950© 2016 Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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Reliquary Guardian Figure, Mbulu Ngulu, Early 20th century, Artist/maker unknown, African. Iron, brass, and copper over wood, 22 x 12 x 3 1/2 inches (55.9 x 30.5 x 8.9 cm). 1988-115-1. Gift of the estate of John F. Harbeson, 1988. © 2016 Philadelphia Museum of Art.