The Enduring Image

The Exhibition

ETHNOGRAPHY       Exhibit

The Ethnography collections at the British Museum contains some of the most striking works of art in the Museum. Three areas have been selected from the vast geographical and chronological array: Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

With the sole exception of the brass plaques from Benin, all the exhibits from Africa are of wood, carved in a powerful and exciting way. These include the Yoruba Helmet mask from Nigeria, and the Yoruba lintel. From the southern Sudan come the male and female figures which the sculptor Henry Moore so greatly admired . Less obviously sculpture are the two wooden headrests from Zimbabwe, and the wrist guard from Burundi, which nevertheless suggest the shape of the wearer. The brass plaques from the African Kingdom of Benin, are amongst the Museum's greatest treasures. They were installed in the palace of the king, decorating the wooden beams which supported the roof.

In Oceanic sculpture the best-known examples are the massive figures from Easter Island. Here are smaller examples which are perhaps connected with a birdman cult, as well as an example from the Marquesas Islands , probably a votive sculpture, and two examples - one made of coral, and most strikingly of black painted limestone with inlaid shell eyes - from the Solomon Islands. The Oceanic group is completed with a display of shell ornaments and jewellery which show great skill in dealing with a difficult material.

Jade stone and ceramic dominate the Central and South American sections. Maya Jade plaques from Central America were the regalia of the elite. The finest example shows a ruler from whose mouth issues a speech scroll. The stone head from Copan is also an example of the Maya aesthetic which includes the artificial flattening of the forehead. The group of ceramic figures from western Mexico all come from tombs, and provide useful information about costumes and ornaments worn in this region in the early centuries AD. Finally , and dramatically, are a serious of Moche vessels from Peru some in the form of human heads or figures, while others have scenes from epic legends painted on them.

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