Over the weekend I went the Metropolitan Museum with a group of friends and took in, albeit too briefly for my liking, the “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” exhibit. Not only is some of the art in there absolutely stunning in its in-your-face-ness, its symbolism, and its raw power… but, guys, a lot of tribal cultures were obsessed with sex. And I love that fact.
This isn’t to say that our Western art from Greece onward hasn’t been obsessed with sex–it absolutely has. But the thing that I find so inspiring and fascinating about tribal, non-Imperial art is that rather than referring slyly to sex or implying that it happens through storytelling or showing it in a weird, shameful/horrific light, the focus seems to be much more on its power. Tribal art is not only interested by sex, but respectful of it as one of the major parts of human existence, imbued with spiritual power. So the depictions of sex and genitals and the like is just totally out there. In yo’ face. Blatant. Brazen. In a way that our more “civilized” art can never be, because in our culture sex is always subversive and shocking, or sometimes in high art circles, “blase.” Sex and sexuality in art can never just be.
Being so accustomed to seeing nude sculptures looking studiously nonsexual, to old statues having their penises broken off, to feeling a little blush-y when confronted with sexual art, walking into the tribal art areas was refreshing to me. And empowering. There, sex just is. It’s not trying to necessarily say anything or evoke anything, it’s just matter-of-fact. How refreshing!
And possibly the coolest thing about this realization for me was that not only was sex a huge and accepted part of many cultures–it was actually understood. Check out the sculpture below, from somewhere in Oceania (possibly the Maori, though I don’t remember distinctly).
See that depiction of the vulva? See how it’s pretty much accurate and it highlights the clit? See how they understood how female genitals worked and were ok with showing them? That sculpture, by the way, was an architectural panel on a meeting-house. Center of culture. Hey, kids, check it out. When you get old enough to be with a woman, focus on that dot. How cool is that?!
Ok. That’s it. I had to geek out a lil.
Oh, btw, I didn’t know this till recently, so I’m sharing the wealth: there is a bar on top of the museum. It’s pricey but worth it. Look at this view!