Heroic Africans is the book form of the catalogue for an exhibition of the same title that launched at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and will travel to the Retberg Museum in Zurich later this year. The book is an amazing window on an aspect of African sculpture that is too little recognized, portraiture (in particular, portraits of famous individuals). As such, author LaGamma uses the text to explore both the meaning of the fame or significance of individuals within African cultures and the sculpture itself as an art form.
It is to her credit that she does not collapse all African cultures into one pattern. The artists, genres and traditions of the sub-continent are distinct in fact and in the book. The work ranges from a weathered stone head from two million years BCE to
bronze and terracotta heads of amazing representational clarity. In between are stylized artistic statements of familiar and unfamiliar sorts. Across these styles and the many cultures represented, there are beautiful examples of the artistic impulse and sculptural achievement. The discussion of the works solidly grounds the work in art history, cultural research, and human nature.
For those who have not been privileged to see the exhibition on which this book is based, Heroic Africans gives a thorough overview of the work. And for even those who did (or will) see the show, the scholarly and very readable text gives an excellent context through which to think about this work’s substantial visual and intellectual import.
– Glenn Harper
Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures
By Alisa LaGamma
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011
312 pages, $60