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Thomas Edward Bowdich, The First Day of the Yam Custom, 1818, printed 1819, colored aquatint. Special Collections Library, University of Michigan Library.

Power Contained: The Art of Authority in Central and West Africa 

Curator: Laura De Becker
August 19, 2017 - December 31, 2017
The Jan and David Brandon Family Bridge

Before colonization, complex hierarchical societies flourished in Central and West Africa. At their summits were a select few—kings and chiefs whose authority was derived from their direct connection to powerful ancestors and predecessors. These rulers were wrapped in expensive textiles or costly furs, and covered in beads and precious metals—materials that not only signaled their extraordinary status, but were also intended to safely contain the great power they wielded.

The famous minkisi (meaning “power figure”) sculptures of Central Africa were similarly activated through the addition of charged materials. Textiles, animal skin, metal, and beads allowed the lifeless wooden carvings to be activated by local spiritual leaders in order to communicate with the realm of the ancestors and spirits. This exhibition explores the parallels between the adornment of the king’s physical body and minkisi. Drawing on works from UMMA’s collection and several loans, the exhibition demonstrates how authority was expressed and power contained across a range of historical cultures in Nigeria, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon.

Lead support for Power Contained: The Art of Authority in Central and West Africa is provided by the University of Michigan Office of the Provost and the African Studies Center.