On September 25, the Dallas Museum of Art celebrates the public opening of its new third-floor Arts of Africa gallery, which now allows visitors to experience the Museum’s collection through a thematic approach in a brighter, more inviting environment. The new gallery space, the first major redesign in nearly twenty years, features more than 170 works from the Museum’s much-admired African art collection. The project was directed by Roslyn Adele Walker, Ph.D., Senior Curator of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific and The Margaret McDermott Curator of African Art.
The DMA was an early advocate for the inclusion of African art in American art museums, and the Museum’s dedication to the field has set precedents since the 1950s. The collection is particularly strong in art from the Songye and Luba cultures in Central Africa and the Yoruba and Edo (Benin kingdom) in West Africa. In 2009, the Dallas Museum of Art published The Arts of Africa, its first catalogue of African art, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of its acclaimed collection of nearly 2,000 objects. The richly illustrated 320-page book was written by Dr. Walker.
“The opening of the new Arts of Africa gallery offers a fresh perspective on the DMA’s exemplary collection,” said Maxwell. L Anderson, The Eugene McDermott Director. “We are excited to present several works that have been recently acquired or off view for some time, and to welcome a broad public to learn about the rich heritage of sub-Saharan Africa.”
The significant reconfiguration of the galleries provides a fresh look and new takes on the collection, mainly those of the sub-Saharan cultures, allowing additional works to be placed on view. Research for the reinstallation project, which was sponsored by the Texas Fund for Curatorial Research, began in 2011 and included visits to the African galleries at various American and European museums to research their displays.
“African art serves as a cradle for humanity, and this new installation and gallery redesign showcases the visual arts of Africa in an exciting new way for our visitors, serving as an introduction to the contributions of these cultures to the greater world’s heritage culture,” stated Dr. Walker.
The new Arts of Africa gallery features well-known work from the Museum’s collection alongside recent acquisitions and works that have previously never been on view. The gallery is installed thematically in five sections, rather than the previous geographical display. Representing and revealing the extraordinary diversity of sub-Saharan cultures and visual traditions, these artworks are arranged according to the themes of governance, the cycle of life, decorative arts and design, trade, and masking.
- The Art of Governance: Art was used to signify and glorify the authority and prestige of those in positions of leadership. Their attire, symbols of office, surroundings, and the ornamentation of their personal possessions reflected their elevated status. Prestige objects were made of durable materials such as hardwood, elephant ivory, gold, bronze, copper alloy (“bronze”), imported cowrie shells, glass, and porcelain, all of which were controlled by the leadership.
This display includes a wide array of objects associated with leadership among the Asante, Benin, Cameroon Grasslands, Luba, Kuba, and Yoruba kingdoms and the Lega’s Bwami association.
This section begins with the oldest object in the collection, a sculpture of a Nigerian political ruler from the Sokoto state created sometime between 200 B.C to A.D. 200. Also on view in the Art of Governance is a collection of Asante gold objects including a sword ornament in the form of a spider and one of a lion, a pendant from the late 19th-century, and a linguist staff.
- Art in the Cycle of Life: Tradition-based African artists were commissioned to make works of art to mark or facilitate the important stages of life, from birth to physical death and the afterlife. Aesthetic objects were used in both religious and social ceremonies and rituals for a number of purposes. Objects that were effective were also visually pleasing, which summoned the deities and spirits to participate in human events.
Key works from the collection on view include a standing female figure from the Luba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo used in spiritual rituals, the recently acquired four-horn community power figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Kota Janus reliquary guardian figure from Gabon.
- Decorative Arts and Design: African “decorative arts” encompass a broad range of objects, including architectural elements such as granary doors, door locks, tent posts, head rests (pillows) and seats, containers for cosmetics and ointments, drinking and storage vessels, musical instruments, weapons, clothing, and jewelry. The artists who made these artworks applied the same creativity, skill, and craftsmanship to their design and decoration as they did to the masks and figures used in religious and social rituals.
A number of works in this section have never been on view before including the mirror case attributed to the Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise, a Fulani pair of gold and brass earrings, and a wooden stool by the Dan peoples of Liberia and the Ivory Coast from the first half of the 20th century.
- Impact of Trade: African trade goods—pepper, ivory, animal hides, wax, amber, indigo, textiles, gold, and slaves—were exchanged for European horses, silk, copper and brass, clothing, beads, tobacco, alcohol, and firearms. Because foreign materials and objects were expensive to obtain, they added prestige and value to African ritual objects and emblems of leadership. African representations of foreigners in figures and masks as well as Islamic and Christian devotional objects, including a selection of Christian crosses created between the 18th and 20th centuries, were rendered according to traditional African aesthetics. A Yoruba 18th-century torque, which was used as currency, and a prestige tobacco pipe bowl made by the Bamum peoples represent aspects of trade in Africa.
- Masks: African masks serve as supports for the spirit of deities, ancestors, and culture heroes, which may be personified as human or animal, or a composite. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the masquerade is an ancient, highly developed, and enduring art form that is an aesthetic expression of a community’s history, culture, and identity. It involves masking, costume design, music, and dance.
This section presents a variety of masks from sub-Saharan Africa in a range of types, styles, sizes, and materials including a gigantic Baga d’mba shoulder mask from Guinea, an elephant mask (mbap mteng) from Cameroon, and a helmet mask (mukenga) from the Kuba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On Wednesday, September 30, Dr. Walker will lead a gallery talk on the reinstallation of the Arts of Africa gallery at 12:15 p.m. Visit DMA.org for information regarding programs related to the works on view in the Arts of Africa gallery.