Beyond Compare: Art From Africa in the Bode Museum

‘Every visit to a museum prompts viewers to compare and interpret objects, but what does it mean to identify similarities and differences?’

The Bode Museum is a historic art museum located in the centre of Berlin. Like the others around it on Museum Island, such as the Altes Museum and the Pergamonmuseum, it’s old and has an emphasis on traditional pieces of art and specific time periods, and includes pieces typically found in other Berlin museums. The particular focus of this museum is that of Byzantine sculptures, and it is amazing to see such a vast collection of such age and from a range of different countries. What makes it quite notable, however, is the museum’s most recent endeavour.

The latest exhibition of the Bode Museum is one that places European and African artworks side-by-side, grouped by theme, style and history, in such a way that has rarely been seen before in such a space. As is written on the website for the exhibition, “many objects from Africa were defined as ethnological artefacts, while other objects of comparable artistry from European ritual contexts remained in art museums” – why is this the case? Why is one artistic and the other ethnographic?

It was a delight walking through the halls of this historic and ornate museum, being able to see the stark contrasts and unexpected similarities between these geographically and ideologically different pieces of art. One thing I’ve noticed is that art is often divided by era and location, such as the Italian Renaissance or French Modernism, and African works are often also separated, so the opportunity to see them together is usually quite rare. As a result, however, you are able to draw the conclusion that every society has the same ideals being creating these types of art, the same idols to revere, the same lessons to teach, regardless of geography.

Amazingly there’s an app which has images and details of every paired items in this exhibition, with far more information than was available at the actual exhibits (which you can download here if you want to have a look). And it is because of this I can actually show some images of the different pieces (because I’m a fool who forgot to take any pictures myself).

Opposite or Complementary?

The theme of this pairing is balance. The one on the left shows a woman and a skeletal figure back-to-back, serving as something of a memento mori (a reminder that you must die), and the one on the right shows a man and a woman back-to-back, equals in life. These pieces, I would argue, are simultaneously both opposite and complementary. Life and death are opposites, and man and women is often also seen as such, however they complement one and other as without one the other would not be defined as existing.

A stark difference here, however, is that the ideologies are contrasting. On the left, the piece of European descent, serves as a warning that beauty fades, and death is the end for us all, therefore one must live life virtuously. On the right, however, a Luba figure originating from the Congo, we are confronted with a somewhat more heartening comparison, which is that men and women are in balance and two parts of an ideal whole. This would contrast heavily with the traditional European notion of the balance between men and women, where the women are definitely seen as lesser.

There are dozens of other pairings within this museum, and therefore dozens of other ways to make some interesting and previously unknown contrasts and comparisons between some awesome African and European sculptures. Since we can’t all just hop on a plane and head over to Berlin (it’s only been a few weeks and I want to go back already!) I would definitely recommend to download the app and check see them through that – the museum has done a fab job and there’s just so much information about every piece and some insight into their meanings and implications.

That’s all for me for this one, I hope you enjoyed it!

-Alice

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