One thing is whiteness, a confusing sight. The show begins with two wood figures carved by Kongo artists in Central Africa in the 19th or early 20th century. One figure is female, the other male; both have similar facial features and painted white skin.
The female figure — nude, kneeling and tensed — is almost certainly a traditional image of an ancestral spirit and was possibly created as a grave marker. Her chalky pallor signals her unearthly status. The male figure is harder to understand. He isn’t nude. He wears a European-style jacket and a helmetlike hat. He sits as if relaxed, with a leg crossed over the other. Does his white skin indicate that he’s a spirit too or, given his attire and pose, a light-skinned foreigner?
He could be both, suggests the show’s curator, Nii Quarcoopome, who leads the Department of Africa, Oceania and Indigenous Americas at the institute. Although some Africans had been encountering Arab traders for centuries, the sudden arrival of Portuguese sailors on the West African coast around 1450 caused a sensation.