Important works of art from African cultures have been part of our museum since the 1950s. The collection has grown over the decades to include hundreds of objects that represent the long history and extraordinary cultural diversity of this huge continent. Now, through a generous grant of $1 million from the McKnight Foundation, we are able to present this impressive collection of African art in its own gallery.
To help visitors understand basic concepts about African cultural and religious traditions and the role art plays in them, we have developed a variety of educational tools, including new labels and thematic panels with maps and photographs of objects in their original contexts. At an interactive computer-learning center, guests can see and hear performances of masks being danced in village ceremonies and scenes of African kings in royal court proceedings. An audio tour and an ongoing series of public programs funded by an endowment created by the McKnight Foundation's grant will complement these imaginative discovery aids. The endowment ensures that the museum can always support programs such as lectures, tours, music, dance, storytelling, and other African cultural arts. The program also features activities designed to serve Minnesota's African-American community.
The Institute's collection is anchored by a distinguished group of works dating from around 500 B.C. to around A.D. 1400 that shows the ancient roots of the African sculptural traditions. Our earliest example is the imposing terra-cotta figure of a seated man from the Nok culture in present-day Nigeria. His formal, contemplative pose and the crooked staff and three-part flail decorating his arms associate him with the world of pharaonic Egypt, which was still flourishing when the Nok figure was created. Our new gallery of ancient Egyptian art is now adjacent to the African Galleries to emphasize the enduring geographical and historical ties between these two regions.
Another example of early African art is the magnificent portrait head of a royal female from the Nigerian culture of Ife; it was made about a thousand years after the Nok figure (around A.D. 1400-1600) and exemplifies the skills of the African artist in creating realistic images of sensitivity and refinement. The great Djenne wooden equestrian figure (around A.D. 1200-1400) embodies the themes of kingship and social order. This central element of the collection continues with royal objects from Benin, including a large carved ivory tusk, and a bronze leopard, both from the 17th century, and a 19th-century bronze portrait head of an oba, or king. This section also features new acquisitions that we haven't previously been able to show because of space constraints. Some of these exciting new works include a 19th-century Asante king's throne from Ghana, a Yoruba palace door from Nigeria, and a collection of iron ritual blades from central Africa. Other works throughout the galleries represent various media and techniques mastered by African artists, including wood carving, metalwork, ceramics, textiles, beadwork, and painting.
Another large area of the galleries is devoted to masks and public performance. Masks exhibited with their full costumes demonstrate to visitors how these carved objects are part of a larger, socially complex ritual system. Explanatory labels with photographs of masks in use and programs on our interactive learning center enhance this display.
Other major thematic areas include a section on religious and spiritual power; it features several sculptures of mothers holding children and a striking group of male and female sculptures that express many aspects of sacred and temporal power.
Contrasted with these very specialized objects are works of art used in everyday life, such as ceramics that range from a pair of portrait vessels from the Mangbetu in northern Congo to a beautifully abstract jar made by the Zulu in South Africa. The display also includes such utilitarian objects as combs, boxes, headrests, and spoons that are artfully designed, fabricated, and decorated.
The galleries also house works created for divination ceremonies and other sculptures used in funerary events and as reminders of the continuing presence and power of ancestors in everyday life. We also present examples of contemporary African art that are born from the creative spirit that continues to distinguish the diverse artistic traditions of the peoples of the African continent.
A new space for the display of textiles, costumes, jewelry, and other decorative arts from north African countries is adjacent to the gallery containing ancient Egyptian art and the one containing objects from sub-Saharan Africa. For the first time, we can share with our public these beautiful works that our curator, Lotus Stack, has been collecting in Morocco for years.
The new African Galleries represent a major milestone in the history of our museum. Thanks to the outstanding support of the McKnight Foundation and the generosity of many collectors and donors, the Institute is finally able to present a permanent display of African arts that we can all be proud of. Now and in the years to come, we and our children can learn about—and from—some of the world's great cultures by visiting this remarkable community resource.
Evan M. Maurer is Director and CEO of the Institute and curator of African, Oceania and the Americas.
Related ImagesNigeria, Ife city
Shrine Head, 12th-14th century
The John R. Van Derlip Fund
Democratic Republic of Congo
Maternity Figure, 20th century
Wood, Vegetable fiber, canine teeth, and pigments
The John R. Van Derlip Fund
Leopard, 17th century
Miscellaneous Works of Art Fund
Eastern Nigeria, Jos Plateau
Seated Dignitary, about 250 B.C.
The John R. Van Derlip Fund