The Oracle sculpture in NY City has drawn mixed reactions. But is it misunderstood or offensive?

13 May 2021 - 10:47 By Khanyisile Ngcobo
A man stands and looks at Sanford Biggers' statue 'Oracle' at the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, New York City.
A man stands and looks at Sanford Biggers' statue 'Oracle' at the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, New York City.
Image: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

A huge new bronze sculpture welcoming visitors to the Rockefeller Center in New York, has garnered confusion and questions online over its representation of “African culture” and its symbolism.

The 7.6m tall black “Oracle” with a huge head joins murals, flags and videos at the venue, all created by African American artist Sanford Biggers, whose artwork also includes music and performance.

The seated figure is part of the Harlem-based artist's “Chimera” series of sculptures that combines African masks and European figures to explore mythologies of those cultures.

“I've always been intrigued by Rockefeller Center for its architectural history and mythological references,” Biggers said in a statement, calling the Art Deco-styled venue “an ideal context for myth creation”.

Biggers said he decided to name the centrepiece “Oracle” because of his intrigue with oracles “throughout antiquity”.  

In later weeks, an interactive feature will be added to the sculpture, where viewers can “consult” the Oracle and get direct responses to their queries. 

While Biggers's latest artwork has won some praise for being “provocative”, the sculpture has also attracted criticism online over its interpretation of African mythology and “culture”.

So why has there been such strong reaction to the artwork? Is it a question of being misunderstood, or is it indeed racist and offensive, and finally, could Biggers have used different elements to get his message across? 

WHY THE ORACLE HAS SPARKED OFFENCE

Since the unveiling of the controversial sculpture earlier this week, questions have abounded on the message behind the artwork and the decision to frame it the way the artist has.

Biggers has said the sculpture “is a combination of the body of Zeus and a face and head from different regions and sculptures of Africa”. Many have incorrectly assumed it's a depiction of “African culture” and have blasted the artist over this.

There has also been criticism of the choice of design, with many questioning if the artist could not have used better images or references to get his message across. 

MISUNDERSTANDING OR OFFENCE?

As mentioned, Biggers has explained that he drew inspiration from Greek and African mythology when creating the Oracle and was inspired by artwork from various African cultures. The artist also drew from other symbolic pieces at the Rockefeller Center and his previous works displayed at various sites.

This messaging appears to have been lost in translation, as many were offended by the use of African imagery to depict the head, labelling it racist and urging the centre to take down the sculpture. Many have questioned if there aren't any more appropriate African artworks from which he could've drawn inspiration and raised issue with another flawed characterisation of African mythology and art by an American.

THE VERDICT

While Biggers's artwork incorporates elements of both Greek and African mythology and explores the idea of oracles, the decision to use certain aspects of African art to communicate that message — without proper context — may be construed as ill-judged.

The manner in which he depicted the Oracle's head vs the torso can also come under critique as many view it as an inappropriate use of African symbols. There have been arguments that the artist could have used a better design when creating the sculpture.

• Biggers' works will be on view until 29 June, with plans to take the centrepiece sculpture on tour later.

— Additional reporting by Reuters


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