"Their faces are strong, quiet and reflective. They are thinking about our problems and how to help us," is how one village elder described ancestral images created in Africa's equatorial rainforest in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A few of the 130 sculptures gathered in this Met exhibit are shown next to similar figures from the West and Far East: A 12th-century Virgin and Child, the wood grooved with undulating patterns, is placed near the elongated curves of a Fang people's wooden figure of a woman with a small twin riding her shoulders and grasping the arc of her carved hair. Other juxtapositions reveal parallels with Buddhist ancestor worship. By exposing our universal desire to remember the dead, this show brings context to artworks once seen in the West as mere primitive abstractions. (Although Picasso clearly felt a spiritual gravitas, noting in 1917, "These works of religious art, which are both impassioned and rigorously logical, are the most beautiful of all the products of the human imagination.") God knows the masks carved by the Kwele people for use in ceremonies seeking ancestral guidance are as gorgeous an anthropomorphization of animals as you're ever likely to see. Antelope horns form a diamond shape that is subtly flattened when translated into eyes and ears, all joined by a sinuous curve of snout; a gorilla exudes regal aggression through a jutting triangular forehead echoed by a proud nose and anchored by sweeping fangs. A head element from a Fang people's shrine glistens with a century's worth of palm-oil anointments—the eyes, made from nickel-size mirrors, capture flickers of light, creating a sense of something ineffable nearby. Like the Greek and Roman fragments in nearby galleries, some of these sculptures feel more human for their wear. The deep-set, heart-shaped eyes in one wooden head are pulled nearer to the surface because a once-protruding nose has been abraded by a century of veneration. The specifics of the individual are worn away, leaving a hauntingly beautiful specter... More >>>