A terrific exhibition of carved wood sculptures inaugurates the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s first gallery exclusively dedicated to the display of the arts of Africa. On the second floor of the Hammer building the newly renovated space is not large: Big exhibitions often have entryways that are bigger. And it’s not uncommon to see shows with educational texts covering more wall space than is occupied by this compact show.
But bigger is not always better. The 27 ceremonial objects that make up “Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa” are scaled to the human body. Many are made to fit in the hand, on the head or under one’s neck, while sleeping. Each needs to be seen up-close and in person.
All of the ancestral figures, medicinal bowls, regal staffs, double-sided cups and elaborate masks resonate alongside their neighbors. This allows first-time visitors and more experienced viewers to see the stylistic consistencies that unify these fascinating objects and to notice the idiosyncrasies that distinguish one from another. Sometimes the hand of a specific artist is revealed. More often anonymous adaptations amplify each piece’s accessibility, not to mention its humanity. Such range reveals a robust, visually sophisticated culture.