Sculpture under the Medical Gaze: "Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture " on view at the de young museum
By Joe Ferguson
In The Birth of the Clinic, philosopher Michel Foucault describes the development of what he called the medical gaze as the innovative way of looking at the human body wherein the physician was able to see beyond the visible flesh of a patient to the underlying structures of anatomy, physiology, and pathology. Physicians are still taught to uphold this process. From the minute they meet a patient, they observe and examine his or her body during the taking of the history, then the physical exam, and, frequently, diagnostic testing.
The idea of examining the form of the body to understand what is underneath is not new. This idea goes back at least to Galen--Hippocrates had other ideas--and was represented in its extreme in the practice of physiognomy, the idea that a person’s character or personality could be determined by outward appearance. From the Farnese Hercules to Rodin’s The Athlete, we have been, and remain, a culture obsessed with the body’s form. That perspective, however, has been unique to Western culture.
In his book The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine, Shigesha Kuriyama argues that where the Greeks saw articulations and sinews, the Chinese saw hues and contours. He believes that the emphasis on anatomy--particularly muscular anatomy--was particular to the ancient Greeks. Early Chinese physicians felt a body could be better understood by touching, listening, and even smelling. The paradox of how these two cultures attempted to understand the body is best illustrated by two medical drawings reproduced for the text--Hua Shou’s illustrations of the fourteen cardinal circulation channels printed in 1341 CE, and Vesalius’s figure of the body’s musculature dated 1543 CE. These disparate representations of the body led to disparate practice paradigms.
Current practices in cross-cultural medicine have attempted to address different attitudes about health and body image, but have yet to address important historic and symbolic body representations in different cultures. A remarkable opportunity to view some of these differences is on display at the de Young Museum in the exhibition Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture, on view through July 5th.
The exhibition features 120 pieces of classic and iconic sculptures from sub-Saharan Africa that pay homage to the human figure in African art. There are approximately 110 distinct cultural groups represented by the sculptures, spanning several centuries and representing a broad range of styles from realism to abstraction.
The show is organized under useful headings signifying the artifacts’ social or ritual functions—“Reliquary: To Mourn, to Bury, to Commemorate,” “Community Protection: To Protect, to Maintain, to Guard” and “Abundance: To Plea, to Cultivate, to Harvest.”
In perhaps a nod to the neurocognitive meaning of embodiment, some of the objects are displayed without vitrines. This allows viewers the opportunity to move around the works, providing a more intimate encounter than would have been afforded by a traditional presentation.
The objects are constructed from a broad variety of materials--wood, metal, ivory, bone, fiber, pigment, and shell--and served many purposes. They expressed social values, represented ancestral lineage, and were used in spiritual and religious ceremonies. For example, the intricate hairstyles and stylized scarification marks of the bwimpe--power figures--expressed the ideal of beauty as a moral virtue. These particular works were used in rituals that were believed to offer protection to women and their children.
It is important to consider that these works of art were removed from their communities and entered into the art market, thus depriving them of their original contexts. The eyema byeri--image of the ancestor--from the Fang Ntumu of northern Gabon, for example, were once placed atop reliquaries containing human remains. During the early 1900s, traditional African sculpture had a powerful influence on European artists, such as Matisse and Picasso, resulting in a spur of interest by European and American art dealers and collectors.
While we often think of SciArt as art inspired by science, it is possible, however, for art to inspire those of us who work in, or are fascinated by, the sciences. Embodiments provides a rare and challenging view of body representation not derived from Western medical and scientific enterprises and is a worthy investigation for SciArt enthusiasts.
If You Go:
Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture
On view through July 5, 2015
de Young Museum
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
Open Tuesdays – Sundays, 9:30 am to 5:15 pm