All posts in “Emblems of Encounter”

The Adoration of the Magi

Object of The Week: The Adoration of the Magi

SAM’s painting by Francesco Bassano of the Adoration of the Magi contributes to several different stories in art history: the Italian Renaissance, Venetian painting, and religious art, among others. By situating this work where it is, in our Emblems of Encounter installation, we’re encouraging folks to look at the painting through a particular lens, focusing on its inclusion of two figures with dark skin: the magus that takes a central place in the painting, and the smaller page who stands behind him.

Why are these figures here? What role do they play? What do they reveal?

By the time he painted this work, Francesco Bassano could rely on established traditions attached to the Adoration story that would tell him what symbols to include and how to compose his picture. This prominent biblical story had been referenced by countless artists over several hundred years and had become codified in European visual art. Still, it wasn’t until the years between the middle of the 14th and the middle of the 15th centuries that artists working in what is now Germany and the Czech Republic initiated the trend of depicting one magus with dark skin.¹ The motif of the African magus in visual art developed out of Medieval writings that allegorized biblical stories: scholars at that time understood the three magi, or wise men, who appear in the Book of Matthew as symbols for the three known continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe. A writer known as Pseudo-Bede would make the not unreasonable corollary that the African magus was dark-skinned.² This black magus made his arrival in Italian painting around the mid-15th century, importantly coinciding with growing interaction between Europe and Africa: trade, missionary efforts, and of course, the importing of slaves.

Similarly serving to fill the scene with visual interest and to illustrate the burgeoning diversity of the painter’s world, a group of sweetly rendered animals attends the scene. The caravan of worshippers arrives on the backs of camels, donkeys, and horses. A furry monkey surveying the scene, a pair of handsome dogs, and a regal peacock complete the menagerie. The movement of the painting, enforced by the swooping line of the caravan, leaning figures and gestures, directs our eye to the figures of the infant Jesus and mother Mary. Their whiteness is the standard against which the African magus and his page are made to look different.

Though Bassano’s painting reflects a one-sided perspective, it seems to me that it could hardly have been otherwise. The painting records a historical moment when people were interacting across cultures and across continents with more frequency than ever. The appearance of the black magus in the larger theme of the Adoration shows one people group attempting to make sense of an increasingly complex and diverse world, folding new revelations into their existing understanding of things. In such pictures, we see a European effort to “reassert order and to avoid an ontological abyss,” says historian Peter Mark. “By fitting the African into an existing Christian iconography, European artists were incorporating the Black man into their familiar view of the world.”³

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: The Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1575, Francesco Bassano (Italian, 1549-1592), oil on canvas, 61 5/8 x 81 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Clarence A. Black Memorial Collection, 50.76
¹ Stefan Goodwin, Africa in Europe, Vol. 1, Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2009; 148.
²Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Epiphany of the Black Magus Circa 1500,” in The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol. III, Pt. 1, Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2010; 10-11.
³ Peter Mark, “European Perceptions of Black Africans in the Renaissance,” in Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory, Exh. Cat., New York: Center for African Art, 1988; 30.
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Object of the Week: Les Années 90 (The Nineties)

Congolese artist Chéri Samba has said that he likes to incorporate text into his narrative paintings because it keeps the viewer’s eye on the art longer. For visitors who find Samba’s acrylic painting of The Nineties in our Emblems of Encounter installation, it’s not just the French text that needs deciphering. Untangling what’s happening in the picture—as well as thinking about how the text informs the scene—all takes time and effort. Samba has created an image rich with symbolism and relationships for sorting out, and there’s plenty to delve into before even getting to the language.

Most clearly, the scene shows us two men. In the lower left, a figure in a blue suit, sleeves rolled up, lounges passively. His pocket is stuffed with cash, while the chest next to him is noticeably empty. His brown skin contrasts the fair skin of the second man. He looks and gestures toward this figure, who stands near the center of the composition, donning green pants and a white jacket, and gripping a briefcase in his left hand. He’s not looking back at the seated figure to receive the gesture. Instead, he gazes outward purposefully, toward the portion of the canvas where threatening clouds have lifted just a bit.

Les Années 90 (detail) by Cheri Samba

There’s a ground in a burnt sienna color very nearly connecting them both, except for a path of moody blue water. The scale of the figures—the man in the blue suit fills about twice as much of the canvas as the other man—also communicates to us that there’s distance between them. Our view of the water ends as it comes to what looks like a grey stone wall, its edge jagged like the irregular coastlines of the two land masses on which the figures stand. With the rough wall, forming a barrier between the men, there’s further separation where connection seems more natural.

The man in the blue suit is seated on a grassy green surface. Above and behind him, we see the outline of the continent of Africa, filled in with the same fertile green, composed of many short marks, as blades of grass in a field. The artist has laid a symbol onto the map, and because of its shape and function we’d expect this to be an “x”–only one arm of this symbol is significantly longer than the others, so the shape more closely resembles a cross.

Samba’s painting offers a biting satire of hypocrisy and greed, in a scene reflecting on corrupt leadership and rapacious opportunism. Judging by the work’s title, The Nineties, we imagine the artist is reflecting on a specific time period and likely responding to certain wrongs. That he painted this only in 1991 adds even more weightiness to the picture; it seems to be a dark vision of what he foresaw unfolding as much as a rebuke of events he had already witnessed.

Emblems of Encounter installation at Seattle Art Museum

In Emblems of Encounter, Samba’s thoughtful critique joins a group of objects that chart 500 years of the complex and difficult history of European-African interaction. Considering The Nineties, even without the specific narrative laid out, I’m reminded that our understanding of nuanced histories depends, to a large extent, on what side of the shore we stand as we perceive them.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Les Années 90 (The Nineties), 1991, Cheri Samba (Congolese, born 1956), acrylic on canvas, 59 x 77 x 1 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 93.81, © Cheri Samba. Les Années 90 (The Nineties) (detail). Salt cellar, ca. 1490-1530, Sapi culture, Sierra Leone, ivory, 6 3/4 x 3 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck, 68.30.
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