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Strategy, Chess and How African Art Influences the World

African artwork and artifacts in ‘Strategic Interplay’ highlight 1,500 years of the intersections between art and conquest

June 11, 2024

"Kifwebe Mask,"

early 20th century. Basonge Tribe (Zaire, modern day Democratic Republic of Congo).

23-1/2x11-9/16x13-3/8. Carved wood with polychrome painted decoration and raffia. Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1973.8. Photo Credit: Toledo Museum of Art.

Royalty and power will permeate the galleries as the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) draws parallels between the game of chess and African art with “Strategic Interplay: African Art and Imagery in Black and White.” The exhibition, on view Nov. 9, 2024-Feb. 23, 2025, will feature historical artifacts, representative chess sets and artworks that acquaint visitors with how African art uses symbolism and patterning to communicate leadership, authority and cultural identity. Juxtaposed with artworks created in Europe and inspired by African culture, the items on view highlight the intertwining influence African art and the game of chess have had over 1,500 years. 

Lanisa Kitchiner, consulting curator of African art for TMA , brings together works from the TMA collection and other prestigious institutions to highlight African artists as strategic thinkers whose works are a source of inspiration and symbolic meaning. Simultaneously, on two separate continents in the 20th and 21st centuries, European avant-garde artists were using chess and African imagery to express new, modernist sensibilities while African artists reimagined chess motifs both as poetic analogies to post-colonial conditions and as decorative patterns channeling indigenous design and symbolic meaning. 

“The Toledo Museum of Art seeks to broaden understanding about connections between African art and chess and the strategic acumen involved in both creative pursuits,” said Adam M. Levine, Edward Drummond and Florence Scott Libbey president, director and CEO. “‘Strategic Interplay’ reveals parallel and overlapping metaphors, maneuvers and motifs between the seemingly disparate fields of African cultural expression and the royal game of creative war-play with hope that viewers might appreciate African art through an alternative lens.”

 Chess spread across the African continent starting in the 7th century, beginning a millennium of interactions, some deeply problematic, ranging from the supply of ivory for chessboards to the forced supply of labor. The complexities of that relationship are on view in this exhibition.

 “Used both as inspiration and allegory, the strategic maneuvers of the game mirror the power dynamics of colonial expansion, with the chessboard becoming a symbolic battlefield for domination and control,” said Kitchiner. “Artists in Europe and Africa created chess sets and artworks depicting power struggles between Europeans and Africans, reflecting the socio-political realities of the time.”

 TMA presents the exhibition in three sections —“Material Assessment,” “Modernist Gambits” and “Endgames.” The 64 artworks include sculptures, textiles, ceramics, paintings and photographs. Diverse treatments of the archetypal black and white chess grid motif and its symbolic meaning are showcased in provocative pieces from the Kuba Kingdom, Francis Picabia, Bwa artists from Burkina Faso, Pablo Picasso and others. Ingenious artworks referencing royalty and power by Mary Sibande, Magdalene Odundo, Aida Muluneh, Constantin Brancusi, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and other historical and contemporary pieces are also showcased. Representative chess sets on view include “Dieppe Europeans vs. Africans” by ivory artisans in 19th-century France.

“Material Assessment” examines the shared motifs between African art and chess. Historical artifacts including carved wooden sculptures and ornate masks are displayed adjacent to chess sets for visitors to witness how African artists employ symbolism to convey messages of leadership, authority and cultural identity. 

“Modernist Gambits” focuses on the European avant-garde movement and how artists like Constantin Brancusi, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp drew inspiration from African aesthetics and chess iconography. The cross-cultural dialogue and the birth of new stylistic forms that emerged from this artistic fusion are showcased by works including Man Ray’s “The Knight’s Tour” and Brancusi’s “Bronze Head of Black Woman.” 

The dynamic relationship between the strategic warfare on the chessboard and the artistic battles fought by African creators is explored in the section “Endgames.” Artworks that tactically address societal challenges, employing artistic expressions as a powerful means of resistance, resilience and cultural preservation particularly in ways mirroring various aspects of the game of chess fill this section. Works include El Anatsui’s “History of Africa” and Peju Alatise’s “Death and the King’s AlasoO fi (part 2).”


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