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Africa's art -- in a word: 'magnificent'

Art of ancient times can be found in the oddest places, but very few works of art have been discovered serving as a scarecrow in a yam field. That, however, is exactly where the first and one of the most important terra-cotta heads of the then unknown Nok culture of Africa was found in 1943. It had been placed there by a clerk in a tin mine from whose depths it had originally been discovered.

Its discovery alerted the miners, and since then 150 Nok objects have been recovered from various tin mines, as well as in archaeological excavations in that area.

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The original head found in 1943 (dating from the 5th century BC) and other examples of the Nok culture -- together with the art of several other African cultures -- can be seen here in the Metropolitan Museum's stunning exhibition "Treasures of Ancient Nigeria: Legacy of 2,000 years."

This show, lent by the Nigerian government, was originally organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts, and is the first comprehensive exhibition of Nigerian art ever presented in this country. Its 100 pieces include outstanding examples of the art of the Nok culture, of Igbo-Ukwu -- whose craftsmen had produced virtuoso works using the lost-wax technique of bronze casting by the 10th century AD -- and of the city-states of Ife and Benin, whose magnificent royal courts produced sculpture capable of holding its own anywhere.

Also on view is an enigmatic group of large bronze figures found on two remote islands in the Niger River. Their creators are unknown, but local legend attributes their presence on the islands to the mythic hero Tsoede.

To date Nigeria is the only Black African country where systematic archaeology has permitted an overall view of its history and culture. Even so, most of the objects in this exhibition were still underground or unrecognized as recently as 40 years ago. And it is safe to assume that many more are still waiting to be found.

An important archaeological event was the accidental discovery in 1938 of the art of the Igbo-Ukwu in eastern Nigeria. In this case it was the digging of a cistern, which unearthed a set of bronzes lying about two feet below the surface. Although the man who found them didn't realize their significance, he kept them for their presumed magical and curative powers.

Igbo-Ukwu is generally dated to the 9th century AD -- although at least one expert believes it might have been closer to the 15th. Its excavation is one of the most thoroughly studied and published in the whole of Africa. To date, those excavations have taken place in three areas, amassing a wide variety of decorative and ornamental bronzes.

The second of these areas is the site known as Igbo Richard, where the burial chamber of an important person -- a ranking political or religious leader -- was unearthed. Buried with him were various types of body ornaments and more than 10,000 beads -- as well as such objects as a staff with the head of a leopard skull, a fan, and a fly whisk.

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If these works do actually date to the 9th century AD -- and the best evidence indicates they do -- then the Igbo-Ukwu were the earliest workers of copper and its alloys in West Africa. They also knew that copper was not suitable for casting, and so worked it by smithing. For castings they used leaded bronze in enclosed molds. These metals were probably imported from far away, and were most likely exchanged for ivory, slaves, and kola nuts.

Igbo-Ukwu art is characterized by its complex surface decoration, which tends to give the objects an overall encrusted look. Insects and small animals, as well as shell forms, were particular favorites for these surface details, and were often woven into complex spiral and chainlike linear patterns. Although there is no reason to believe they have been near the water, several of the works on display have the encrusted and slightly lumpy look one often sees in centuries-old objects retrieved from the bottom of the sea.

According to radiocarbon dating, fully developed Ife art flourished between the 11th and 15th centuries AD. But here again, the major discoveries of this culture's art have been recent: in an accidental find made by a man digging the foundation of a house in 1938, and during subsequent scientific excavations taking place between 1949 and 1972.

I found the sculpture of the Ife particularly engaging -- simple, extraordinarily human in quality and appearance, and with the kind of serenity one finds only in the greatest art. The best of these heads equal the sculptural masterpieces of Greece, Egypt, and China. Both "Crowned Head of an Oni" and "Head Said to Represent the Usurper Lajuwa" are representative of the very best Ife art.

But marvelous as Ife art is, I responded most totally to the art of Benin. These bronzes, most particularly the plaques representing various standing figures, must be seen to be believed. They are overwhelmingly original, have the authority and uniqueness of truly great art, and are so dramatically beautiful that I'm hard put trying to think of any sculpture I like better.

The one wall in this show given over to a group of these plaques is a ravishing reminder of what sculpture can be, and causes one to wonder at the cultural blindness that still prevents many from seeing this art as great.

Even lesser pieces such as "Standing Figure of a Messenger" and "Vessel" hold up beautifully -- in fact, they make one wonder if such a word as "lesser" can be applied to art at all.

I cannot recommend this exhibition too highly. It is, to put it simply, magnificent.

It will remain on view at the Metropolitan Museum through Oct. 26.

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