Go Figure! Embodied: Human Figures in Art opens at Newfields this month.

A suite of five galleries on the second floor of the Indianapolis Museum of Art have been completely reimagined, reinstalled, and finally reopened. What began as a practical construction project to cut a clear path to the soon-to-reopen Clowes Pavilion, grew into an experiment in exhibiting art from across the IMA’s collections, united by one major concept. Embodied: Human Figures in Art explores how artworks that depict the body—as wide ranging as an Egyptian mirror dating between 1539 and 1295 B.C.E. to a 2017 American vase—help us ask questions about ourselves and what it means to be human. Eight thematic groupings unfold across the galleries, each focused on using art to explore concepts such as power, identity, and intimacy.  

One of the first sections addresses beauty standards, examining how art can both perpetuate and challenge beauty paradigms in different cultures. It also investigates how feminine beauty ideals are intertwined with other social constructs including race, heteronormativity, morality, and class. Considering the disproportionate number of objects in the IMA’s collection that depict “beautiful” women, the installation asks: What compels artists to capture or challenge beauty ideals? How do our own beauty standards affect our understanding of these works? It also provides contextual information about how different beauty standards were shaped by their respective cultures. 


Let’s take a closer look at one object in this theme. The Sande Society Helmet Mask (sowei or ndoli jowei) was made by a twentieth-century Gola artist in Sierra Leone or Liberia and was used in a masquerade by women in the powerful Sande society. It was the mask’s movement in concert with the body as part of the masquerade that taught the poise, elegance, and refinement of female power to initiates. Even motionless in the gallery, some elements of the mask can still teach us about how beauty for Gola women was not just physical but also behavioral and internal: 


  • Hairstyle: the especially large, bulky style of this mask’s hairdo was common among Gola communities and may reference an individual’s wisdom and intelligence 

  • High forehead: the elegant, high forehead outwardly expresses the physical strength and inner beauty of a mature Sande initiate 

  • Downcast eyes: the mask’s demure, downcast gaze indicates the silent, serious demeanor and inward spirituality expected of recent initiates 

  • Small mouth: the mask’s small, closed mouth cautions silence and discretion, underscoring the secrecy of Sande  

  • Black skin: the glossy, black patina of this mask evokes the sheen and beauty of healthy, clean, well-oiled skin, but it may refer to the blackness of the river bottom, where the Sande spirit is said to reside 


This exquisite Sande Society Helmet Mask is on display alongside other sculpted busts, each of which tells a different story and prompts different questions around beauty standards, many of which are also related to behaviors. Come see, consider, and question these objects, other artworks, and yourself in Embodied, now open on the second floor of the IMA. 


Embodied: Human Figures in Art is part of the Gallery Revisioning Project with funding generously provided by Kay F. Koch. 
Sierra Leone or Liberia (artist, Gola), Sande Society Helmet Mask (sowei or ndoli jowei), 20th Century, wood, pigment, mastic, fiber, metals, cowrie shells, claw, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Eiteljorg, 1989.387