TOLEDO, OH.- The Toledo Museum of Art
has acquired two objects through the annual selection process of its art acquisition group, The Apollo Society. This year’s curatorial theme was African art, and the final selections represent the work of a contemporary Moroccan-born photographer and an unknown 19th-century sculptor from what is now Tanzania.
The compelling photograph La Grande Odalisque, by Lalla Essaydi, references Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ famous 1814 reclining nude, La Grande Odalisque. That oil painting, residing in the Louvre in Paris, belongs to a genre that came to be known as Orientalism. The term describes the exotic and sensual way in which 19th- and early 20th-century Western artists (mostly male) depicted the Muslim culture of North Africa and the Middle East.
In her photo series Les Femmes du Maroc, which includes Le Grande Odalisque, Essaydi reacts to and in some cases recreates these Orientalist images, making subtle changes in poses and facial expressions. Her subjects are draped in white (mourning) cloth and covered in dense Arabic calligraphy done in henna. The words are largely illegible but come from the artist’s own musings about personal identity and freedom.
Born and raised in Morocco, Essaydi married a Saudi prince and lived in Saudi Arabia for many years. She entered art school at age 34 in Paris, finally receiving her MFA in photography and painting from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University in May 2003.
“Lalla Essaydi is among a key group of contemporary Muslim women artists who are making provocative statements about women’s role in modern society,” said TMA Director Brian Kennedy.
Figure of a Woman Carrying a Child is a wooden sculpture from the Tabwa peoples in central Africa dating to pre-1880. The subject’s short, bent legs, rounded hips covered by a fiber skirt, elongated neck and torso, pierced ears and cap-like braided hairstyle are indicative of the culture’s idealized female beauty. The patterned scars carved into the figure’s torso, back, neck and head represent rituals of tribal initiation, whose rites deliberately left scars to dramatize the struggle of people against the forces of nature.
Tabwa villages were autonomous until colonization by Christian missionaries began in the 1870s. Because these ancestral figures were perceived to be idols, most were destroyed by Western occupiers. This example, believed to be one of the only Tabwa maternity figures from the 19th century to exist, was carried out of Africa about 1880 by a man who was likely the brother of one of those missionaries.
The Apollo Society—named after TMA’s Henri Matisse mural Apollo—was formed in 1986 by Georgia Welles and her late husband David to select and purchase significant works of art for the collection. Each fall, Apollo Society members choose a general category, such as the art of Africa. The TMA curatorial staff then researches objects that would be important additions to the collection. At the selection dinner in the spring, the offerings are revealed and members cast their votes for which work(s) will be purchased that year.
“This year’s selections, proposed by TMA’s former curator of ancient art Sandra Knudsen, present strikingly different versions of the idealized female form,” said Amy Gilman, associate director and curator of contemporary art.” We are delighted to add these works to our collection of African art.”
Both objects are now on view in the director’s conference room off Libbey Court.