One of the greatest pleasures of “Art and Power in the Central African Savanna” at the has to be the moment you come across the almost-16-inch-high figure said to represent the Chokwe hero Chibinda Illunga. Curator Constantine Petridis of Cleveland Museum of Art saved it for last, when a few weeks ago he walked a slew of media mavens and African art specialists through the new de Young Museum exhibition of 60 or so sculptures created by Luba, Songye, Chokwe, and Luluwa artisans working in Central Africa.
The wooden Chibinda Illunga is embellished with hair and hide and remarkably beautiful -- its large feet and hands indicate strength, its headdress is gorgeously carved. An icon for the ages, the work is one of the more renowned pieces of African art in the world, and it finds its ideal institutional habitat and perfect context among the other figures in the show, objects that served as containers for magical ingredients and vessels that were used for religious and political ceremonies and purposes.
Elegant, unsettling, and surprising in the their invention, many of the pieces are rarely seen outside of their official homes: Petridis drew a slew from Antwerp’s Ethnographic Museum and assorted private collections. These intermediaries between the physical and spirit worlds were originally designed to guarantee a live birth, a fruitful hunt, or vanquished enemies -- now they can be appreciated for their refinement and detail, as well as the quiet power they wielded in a Central Africa catalyzed by political change.
“Art and Power in the Central African Savanna” runs through Oct. 11. De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., S.F. Hours are Tues.-Sun., 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. (Fri., 9:30 a.m.-8:45 p.m.). $10, $7 seniors, $6 for ages 13 to 17 and college students with ID (free first Tues.). (415) 750-3600, www.deyoungmuseum.org