Sculptor’s Model of a Royal Head

Late Period to early Ptolemaic Period, 381–2nd century B.C.E.
Provenance not known

The incised grid lines on the sides and back of this sculpture and on the lappets of its headdress suggest that the figure  was a sculptor’s model, or trial piece. The rectangular protrusion, from which a uraeus (a cobra on the forehead) would have been modeled, as well as the chisel marks on the chest, support this. However, because royal busts of this type were commonly found in temples, they may have served as a votive, or offering, to a divinity in his or her shrine.

Kehinde Wiley
(American, born 1977)

Houdon Paul-Louis, 2011

Bronze with polished stone base

Though Kehinde Wiley is best known for his portraits of African American men in contemporary clothes, posed in stances drawn from paintings of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, here he shifts from painting to sculpture. In both the lift and the return of the young man’s head and the open V of his zippered collar, this bronze references an eighteenth-century marble bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon (see illustration). In substituting male for female, black for white, and present for past, Wiley upends the earlier sculpture even as he quotes it. His interpretation encourages us to acknowledge the limitations and assumptions of representation and provokes a reconsideration of both stereotype and portraiture.

Face of Amunhotep II

Red granite
New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, circa 1426–1400 B.C.
Provenance not known

The faces on most statues of Amunhotep II differ slightly from those of his two immediate predecessors. Compared with the sculptures of Thutmose III and Hatshesut this statue’s face is a little longer, the eyes somewhat narrower, the brows a bit straighter, the nose slightly thicker, and the mouth less curved. Each change is minute, but together they create a distinctive, recognizable image of Amunhotep II. This face is not a portrait, but an official image conceived by the chief royal sculptors to communicate the ideal physical appearance of Amunhotep II.

Kuosi Society Elephant Mask

Unidentified Bamileke artist, early 20th century
Grassfields region, Cameroon
Cloth, beads, raffia, fiber

Elephants, leopards, and buffalo are often associated with political power in the highly stratified kingdoms of the Cameroon grasslands. Beadwork is also associated with royalty and high rank, making this Bamileke beaded elephant mask a potent symbol of power. The right to own and wear elephant masks is carefully controlled; only members of royal families, court officials, wealthy title holders and important warriors are admitted to the Kuosi masking society that uses them. The society assists the king, or fon, in his role as preserver and enforcer of a rigid sociopolitical hierarchy. These masks are worn at funerals, Kuosi celebrations, and other important events.

Standing Woman, modeled 1932, cast 1955–56
Gaston Lachaise (American, born France,, 1882–1935)


Even when inspired by a particular individual, representations of the human body can acquire universal meanings. Here, Standing Woman suggests an essential female force and vitality. Beginning in 1912, Gaston Lachaise began modeling standing figures inspired by his voluptuous American lover (and wife by 1917), Isabel Nagle.

Indicative of its greater significance, simply as “Woman.” Owing to its celebration of female physical abundance, critics attributed to this work and others like it a timelessness and a kinship with prehistoric representations of fertility.

Baleen Whale Mask, 19th century

Unidentified Kwakwaka'wakw artist
Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbian, Canada
Cedar wood, hide, cotton cord, nails, pigment

Masks like this are owned by a particular person who has inherited the rights to make, wear, and perform with it during potlatch ceremonies, elaborate communal celebrations. The mask is worn along the dancer’s back while he imitates the swimming and diving of the whale by manipulating cords to move the flippers, tail, and jaw. Others sing, shake rattles, and drum during the presentation. Such performances reaffirm and validate their owner’s rights to their clan’s history, honor their ancestors, and bring the mask to life.

Avarice, 2008
Fernando Mastrangelo (American, born 1978)

White corn, white and yellow cornmeal, epoxy, fiberglass, wood, and metal

Fernando Mastrangelo appropriates one of Mexico’s national symbols, the Aztec Calendar Stone, which dates from about 1500 and symbolizes the creation of the Aztec universe. Retaining the central skeletal face of Tonatiuh, the Sun God, Mastrangelo fills the surrounding areas with contemporary consumer products such as pharmaceuticals, soft drinks, candy, sparkplugs and toothpaste.

The depiction of corn-based products draws attention to Mexico’s mass cultivation of corn to meet energy needs (via ethanol) and foreign consumer demands. At the same time, an iconic Aztec image suggests parallels between the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, centuries ago, and the present-day exploitation of local Mexican corn production by North American agribusiness.