Most Americans know little about the vast and diverse continent of Africa, much less the arts created there. Dark and primitive, the arts of the African peoples reflect the rituals of life, stripped to the most basic interpretive forms both conceptually and artistically.
Celebrating the arts of Africa and the profound role that they have played in molding Twentieth Century Abstraction and Modernist art in the “West” is the Smithsonian’s newest exhibition, “African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection.” It is on view through September 7, 2008, at The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art (NMAA).
“African Vision” showcases 88 outstanding artworks, part of a larger collection donated to the NMAA, that represents the largest gift of sculpture in the museum’s history.
In 1959, Paul and Ruth Tishman began their collection with the purchase of two pieces of art from the Benin kingdom †an early Nineteenth Century ivory female figure standing 37 inches tall, made in the court style by the Edo peoples, and a 28-inch-tall, Eighteenth Century copper alloy mask that was worn by a divine-healer in masquerade performances for royalty.
Paul Tishman was a member of a long-established construction and real estate family whose company did, and continues to do, major projects in the metropolitan New York area. In 1924, he joined the Tishman Realty and Construction Company, founded by his father in 1898, after graduating from Harvard University and completing graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Paul and Ruth Tishman would build what is regarded as one of the “great private collections” of African art, according to NMAA.
Buying primarily from dealers and auction houses in New York, Paris and London, the Tishmans focused on masks and figures, yet the collection underscores their interest in large-scale works, painted sculpture and certain regions and topics.
Since the mid-1960s, the collection has greatly influenced the study of African art, through exhibitions and publications, helping to define and set aesthetic standards of quality in this country and abroad, according to museum officials.
The Tishmans’ desire to share the art with as many people as possible eventually led to the sale of the collection to the Walt Disney Company in 1984. While Disney’s original plan of a permanent exhibition space at Epcot never materialized, it proved to be a generous steward, making the collection available for numerous exhibitions and publications. In 2005, Disney donated all 525 objects in the collection, representing more than 75 ethnic groups and 20 countries, to NMAA, continuing the tradition begun by Paul and Ruth Tishman of sharing this great African art with the world.
NMAA is the only museum dedicated solely to the collection, exhibition and study of the ancient and contemporary arts of the entire continent. Its galleries contain exciting, revelatory works, consistent with the museum’s crucial role in disseminating knowledge of and appreciation for Africa’s artistic heritage.
Arguably the least known of the Smithsonian’s major museums, the NMAA is the outgrowth of a private educational institution, the Museum of African Art, founded in 1964 by Warren M. Robbins, a former US Foreign Service officer. Originally located in a Capitol Hill townhouse once home to celebrated abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1979, and was renamed the NMAA in 1981.
In 1987, the museum moved into a new, largely underground building on the National Mall alongside the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. Since then, seeking to form a world-class collection, numerous works have been acquired and the museum’s mission has been expanded to include modern and contemporary art. The collection, which consists of some 8,000 objects, ranges from masks, figures and architectural elements to ceramics, textiles and furniture.
Most African art was created in societies based on subsistence agriculture, in which some farmers also became part-time sculptors, potters or weavers. Because most works of traditional African art were made of perishable materials, few survived the inroads of weather, fire and insects.
Appreciation of African art does not necessarily depend on the skill with which it was made. Aesthetic excellence can be found in crudely carved figures or ineptly made masks, as well as in well-made works. As NMAA curator of collections Bryna M. Freyer puts it, the best African art represents a “sophisticated integration of specific, required cult iconography into a coherent work of art.”
Since traditional European standards of beauty and quality were unknown to African artists, they developed forms and styles based on cultural traditions and needs foreign to the West. The perceived “foreignness” or exoticism of African art meant it was initially exhibited in natural history museums in Europe and America. Only early in the Twentieth Century did African objects begin to be viewed as works of art and be housed in art museums.
European modernists, who were exposed to African sculptures in expositions, museums and galleries, were early advocates for positive perception of African art. “They were intrigued by non-Western arts, including African, which provided them a new way of seeing and conceptualizing form in their own works,” says NMAA curator Christine Mullen Kreamer.
Recalling three decades later his celebrated 1907 encounter with African masks at Paris’s Trocadero ethnological museum, Pablo Picasso said, “The masks weren’t like other kinds of sculpture&They were magical things.” Indeed, the Spaniard suggested that his breakthrough avant-garde masterpiece “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” “must have come to me that day&”
Picasso’s discussion of African art reflected Western fascination with the “primitive,” an offshoot of concepts of colonialism, empire building and the superiority of Europe over Africa. The appeal of African art, Kreamer observes, “was exotic, romantic, dangerous, connected to mystery, magic, the unknown and the untamed, all emblematic of the way that many in the West perceived the ‘Dark Continent.'”
In the United States, she says that a 1914 show organized by modernist impresario Alfred Stieglitz at his Manhattan gallery, 291, “may well be the first exhibition featuring African sculpture as art rather than as ethnographic material culture.”
American perceptions have changed considerably since then; the NMAA has played an important role in advancing acceptance of the aesthetic dimensions of African artwork. Through displays of its permanent collection, special exhibitions, traveling shows and educational programs, the museum has increased American understanding and appreciation for the richness of African art from throughout the continent.
“The Disney-Tishman African Art Collection,” curated by Freyer, is the first of a series of shows that will reveal the quality, breadth, depth and diversity of the collection. A dazzling array of masks in the show offer insights into the diverse masking traditions of Africa, with works depicting beautiful women, forceful men and objects combining human and animal features.
Two fascinating masks from the Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), including a wooden example from the Senufo peoples with human facial features and curving buffalo horns, would be used in dances, funerals and other public events. Also dating from the late Nineteenth to early Twentieth Century, from the Cote d’Ivoire’s Wee peoples, is a masquerade wood mask featuring a life-sized woman’s face surrounded by an elaborate melange of bells, brass tacks and hair.
A face mask made by the Ivory Coast’s Guro peoples combines the rounded ears, small eyes and projecting snout and tusks of an elephant with human hair and a hairline. Worn in masquerades, such masks suggest the power of elephants to transform and respond to change, writes Kreamer.
From Cameroon, on Africa’s west coast, a late Nineteenth to early Twentieth Century crest mask exudes power, with its large, spider silk-covered eyes giving an ominous look to the wooden face with a pair of animal horns attached below and surmounted by a carved prestige cap worn by men of high status. Made by Bamum peoples from the Grasslands region, it was worn as a means to gain divine knowledge.
In another wood Cameroonian crest cap mask of the same vintage, likely emanating from the Kom peoples in the Grasslands region, the human face is topped by a large, knotted fiber prestige headdress. It would have been worn by men of high rank, possibly at funerals.
Nigeria, known for the remarkable range of its art styles, is represented by numerous objects. The showstopper is a small, skin-covered mask with a realistic face and two enormous, downward-curving, hornlike spirals projecting from either side of the head. This spectacular headgear, attributed to the Efik peoples of the lower Cross River region, dates to the early Twentieth Century.
An intriguing Yoruba face mask made of wood and pigment, made in the late Nineteenth to mid-Twentieth Century, features deep-set eyes and seven combs spiking above the head that symbolize inner power or divine force. Nearly 28 inches high, it was worn at funerals.
Particularly unusual is a mid-Twentieth Century water-spirit mask made by Ijo peoples of Nigeria that blends a skull-like human head with a crocodile’s snout and a fish’s tail. At festivals it was worn horizontally on top of the masker’s head, its imagery pointed skyward, suggesting spirits emanating from the water.
A colorful, multifaced mask made by Nigeria’s Idoma peoples, circa 1950, is painted bright blue, red and white. Apparently portraying male and female visages †each topped by a bird eating ripe fruit, symbolizing the harvest †the spiritual mask was used on a variety of celebratory occasions such as funerals, entertainments and Christmastime.
An early Twentieth Century carved and painted crocodile mask emanating from Dragon peoples of Mali has a zigzagging design that suggests flowing water, the crocodiles’ natural habitat. Since the 1930s such horizontal masks have been used to entertain visitors to Dragon villages and at other public events.
One of the most memorable objects on view, measuring roughly 24 by 68 by 7 inches, is a wood, pigment and metal butterfly mask made by Nuna peoples of Burkina Faso in the mid-Twentieth Century. Representing the bush spirit and said to possess supernatural powers, the mask’s butterfly motif may signal the coming of rain and the beginning of the farming season. The human head in the middle is flanked by richly patterned wing designs that are topped by small birds and chameleons attached to the plank by metal pins.
Figurative sculptures are among the most intriguing objects in the exhibition. A Nigerian female figure, in wood with pigment, symbolizes a Urhobo bride, replete with jewelry and conical coiffure. Representations of ivory anklets, metal bracelets and beads suggest an important place in the community, while the vertical forehead marks are traditional scarifications. It is 3½ feet tall.
The delicacy and dramatic composition of an elaborate, painted lidded figural wood bowl reflect the skills of Olowe of Ise, a much-admired early Twentieth Century sculptor to Yoruban royalty. This prestige receptacle, owned by someone of high status, likely held kola nuts, a traditional gesture of hospitality offered to guests and presented to deities during rituals.
A strikingly sleek, modern-looking, enigmatic figure, made of stone with winglike elements, has been linked to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a Thirteenth to Fifteenth Century religious center for a Shona Kingdom, but its origin remains unclear.
A fascinating, double-faced reliquary guardian figure, emanating from late Nineteenth to early Twentieth Century Kota peoples of Gabon, is a masterful blend of abstract, geometric shapes. Made of copper alloy and bone over a wood superstructure, this stylized human form once protected ancestral bones preserved in large baskets.
A nearly 6-foot-tall, wood funerary sculpture from early to mid-Twentieth Century Madagascar, depicts a muscular warrior holding a spear in each hand and gazing menacingly ahead. Perhaps designed as a memorial post or to decorate a tomb, it “radiates authority and prominence,” observes Kreamer.
Arguably the most important †and oldest †work in the exhibition is a beautifully carved ivory hunting horn from Sierra Leone that dates to the Fifteenth Century. Commissioned by Portuguese royalty as a gift to King Ferdinand V of Spain, the 25¼-inch object is festooned with European hunt scenes and heraldic symbols.
Other impressive ivory works, from Nigeria’s Yoruba peoples, include armlets †one from the Sixteenth Century with exquisitely carved kneeling hunchbacks holding tethered monkeys, and crocodiles biting mudfish, with pendant rattles. A pair of armlets, dated Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century, with motifs evoking the spiritual world, may have been worn by a king.
The most colorful objects in the exhibition, made by Nigeria’s Yoruba peoples, include an elaborately decorated, glass-beaded cloth sheath for the iron staff of a major deity; a totally beaded bag for holding a diviner’s ritual objects and a gaily beaded royal crown with veil featuring a human face surrounded by human figures, birds and chameleons.
A scholarly, illustrated, 235-page catalog, published by the NMAA in association with Prestel Publishing, accompanies the exhibition. Thematic essays by Kreamer and entries discussing works in the show shed light not only on the Disney-Tishman collection, but the evolving nature of the discipline of African art history. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art , 191 pages and illustrated, published by the museum in 1999, offers commentary and images of major works in the permanent collection.
The National Museum of African Art is at 950 Independence Avenue SW, on the National Mall. For information, www.Africa.si.edu or 202-633-4600.