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New Rockefeller Center sculpture to honor African culture draws outrage: ‘This needs to be removed’

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From May 5th to June 29th, New York’s Rockefeller Center will be showcasing a new piece of artwork — a sculpture, to be exact — that reportedly combines a European-styled body with a face that resembles a traditional African mask.

Known as the Oracle sculpture, it was made by artist Sanford Biggers and commissioned by the Art Production Fund. Speaking with Artnet, Biggers said that one of his goals was to add some African culture to the mix.

“Biggers sees his work as as a companion of sorts to three of Rockefeller Center’s most prominent artworks: the Zeus relief sculpture at the entrance of 30 Rock, the gold Prometheus sculpture by Paul Manship overlooking the skating rink, and Lee Lawrie’s monumental Atlas on Fifth Avenue,” according to Artnet.

“Because of all those mythological references, having this work here that has a lot of African elements to me is sort of completing the rest of the story,”  he said.

Oracle is reportedly part of a larger series of sculptures by Biggers.

“Oracle is the latest in the Biggers’s ‘Chimera’ sculpture series, which merges African masks and European figures. The seated body is inspired by the ancient Temple of Zeus, while the head is based on masks and other sculptures from various African cultures, including Luba art and the Maasai religion,” according to Artnet.

View the exhibition below:

Another one of Biggers’ goals was to expose what art critics consider to be the racist practice of “white-washing” ancient art.

“I am intrigued by recent scholarship that posits that many of the iconic white, monochromatic marble sculptures we are familiar with were originally painted in brilliant, even garish color,” he said.

“For me, the false perception of these unintentional monochromes as authentic intersects with the early 20th-century ‘black-washing’ of African works, through which hundreds of objects were stripped of all material adornment and any ritual and cultural residue,” he added.

According to Biggers, his Chimera series is designed to “challenge the washing away of history in both cases and acknowledge the impact this revisionism has had on nationalistic propaganda, cultural understanding and the relationship between the West and the rest of the world. The works themselves are dense with fertile references that make them anomalous, deceptively beautiful and complicated.”

Regarding European art, historian Sarah Bond argued in a column published at Forbes in 2017 that, “Although we often romanticize the bare marble of ancient sculpture today, most of these specimens were in fact painted in bright shades of blue, red, yellow, brown and many other hues.”

For instance, the Apollo Belvedere is often depicted with white marble, though according to Bond it was “originally likely done in Bronze in the 4th century BCE.”

Because of the admitted strangeness of Oracle’s face, which resembles a giant African mask, the artwork has been inundated with a bit of mockery on social media.

The mockery appears to be rooted mainly in a misunderstanding of his goals. People think that he was trying to emulate African art, whereas he was apparently trying to challenge faulty ideas and notions that have been embedded in the art community.

See some of the mockery below:

According to Artnet, Oracle is slated to go “interactive” in a few weeks.

“In the coming weeks, Oracle will also begin to live up to its name with the launch of an interactive component allowing viewers to consult the sculpture about their future after activating a QR code. The sculpture will be voiced by ‘various celebrities,’ according to Biggers, although he declined to name names,” the site confirmed.

Check out the rest of Biggers’ work below:

Vivek Saxena

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