“Crest (tsesah)”, 18th century, Cameroon, Grassfields region; Bamileke peoples, Wood, H. 37 × W. 32 1/2 × D. 11 1/2 in. Purchase, Acquisitions and Rogers Funds, and Anonymous, James J. Ross, and Marian Malcolm Gifts, 2017, 2017.35 © 2000–2018 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Four monumental tsesah crests created by Bamileke master sculptors of Western Cameroon will go on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning December 4. Though only a small number of pre-colonial tsesah crests survive today, the genre has a prominent place in the repertory of sculpture from sub-Saharan Africa. The grandeur and originality of the works instantly captured the attention of art critics in the West in the early 20th century, but until this exhibition at The Met, no American museum has displayed more than one tsesah at a time. Showcasing the crests side by side, The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests from Western Cameroon will offer the visitor a rare opportunity to examine several examples of this epic royal art form, while exploring its significance, history, and development in the region starting in the early 18th century. The exhibition is the first public presentation of The Met's recent acquisition of a tsesah crest. This masterpiece is thought to have been carved 200 years ago and may have been a prototype for the extant tsesah corpus. The other three works are on loan from American collections. The exhibition will be complemented by a 27-feet-long ndopdisplay cloth that was used to delineate the space at royal state events and ceremonies where a tsesah would have appeared.

Crest (tsesah), Wood, Bamileke peoples

“Crest (tsesah),” 19th century, Cameroon, Grassfields region; Bamileke peoples, Wood H. x W. x D.: 34 13/16 in. x 21 ¼ x 12 ½ in, Private collection, Courtesy of McClain Gallery. Image (c) Jon Lam and Schweizer Premodern. 

The exhibition is made possible by the Friends of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas: Art of Five Continents, with additional support from Kyveli M. Alexiou and Javier Peres.

The 102 distinct chiefdoms that have historically existed in the Bamileke region shared a leadership structure that centered on the personality of an all-powerful sovereign, or fon. The sovereigns' political ambition and rivalry is reflected in their patronage of art forms that convey legitimacy, prestige, and wealth. Tsesah crests are believed to have been developed to give expression to Bamileke notions of royal power. Worn atop the head or held by an emissary of a fon's inner circle, the tsesah was a towering presence in performances that punctuated matters of state, from royal funerals and enthronement rites to the delivery of judicial sentences. By the time these works were collected by Westerners, they were no longer used in performances.

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“Crest (tsesah),” late 19th century, Cameroon, Grassfields region; Bamileke peoples, Wood, H. x. W. x D.: 30 5/16 x 20 7/8 x 10 13/16 in. National Museum for African Art, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, 2005-6-5.

In conjunction with the exhibition, The Met will offer a variety of education programs, including gallery talks.

The exhibition is organized by Yaëlle Biro, Associate Curator, and Alisa LaGamma, Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

December 4, 2017–September 3, 2018. The Met Fifth Avenue, Gallery 359

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“Crest (tsesah),” late 19th - early 20th century, Cameroon, Grassfields region; Bamileke peoples, Wood, H. x. W. x D.: 36 1/8 × 22 3/4 × 13 in. The Menil Collection, Houston (1970-095 DJ).

Installation view showing four of the wooden 'tsesah' mask,“The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests from Western Cameroon© 2000–2018 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.