African Gallery

New African Galleries Tell Powerful Stories

“These galleries are filled with great stories and great art. You cannot take it all in in one visit, so you will have to keep coming back.” - Nii Quarcoopome, Curator of African Art

For the most part, the powerful objects in the African galleries were not created as works of art destined for a museum. Instead, they were objects of enormous spiritual significance, or they were personal possessions, or objects that held significance in holding communities together, and many were rarely seen.

Under curator Nii Quarcoopome‘s guidance, the Helzberg Family Galleries have been reimagined to make them more interactive, more meaningful and more colorful. Visitors will find that works of art have been added and rearranged into two parts - stories of leadership and status symbols, and stories of spirituality, deities and ancestors. Videos and photographs introduce visitors to the rich diversity of African culture and add context, showing visitors how objects, such as masks, are used in ceremonies or everyday life.

African Art Collection

The African collection comprises approximately 300 objects that are diverse in form and in media. Masks, sculptures, hair combs, headrests, textiles and vessels are among the many types of works represented; media include fiber, metal, wood, beads and clay.

While the African collection exemplifies formal beauty, it also represents the historical range of objects created by cultures south of the Sahara Desert. Most of the artworks were created by artists living in West and Central Africa, primarily the countries of Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Nelson-Atkins’ collection of African art began in earnest in 1958 with the purchase of two 17th-century cast brass artworks from the Benin kingdom in Nigeria; a representation of a ruler’s head made to be placed on a shrine and a figurative plaque that originally adorned palace walls.

About 50 works in the collection are among the best examples of African art in the world. These include a royal Stool with embossed silver decorations from the Asante peoples of Ghana; a superb Standing Male Figure calm in stature and arresting in presence made by a Hemba artist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; an impressive Royal Beaded Throne created by a Bansoa artist in the Bamileke kingdom of Cameroon; a Female Mask (Kifwebe), rare for its attached fiber costume made by Songye artists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; a stunning shrine figure carved by a Baga artist in Guinea; and a reliquary figure exceptional for its double face, relatively large size and three types of metal made by a Kota artist in Gabon.

The oldest work in the collection is a rare and stunning terra-cotta Horse and Rider made by an artist of the Djenne culture in Mali that dates from the 16th century. Conversely, the most recent work is a beautiful vessel with smooth contours and elegant lines created by the renowned Kenyan-born ceramicist Magdalene Odundo that dates from 1994.

The Museum boasts a small collection of art from East and South Africa, including an exquisite, life-like mask carved by a Yao artist from Tanzania and two sumptuously beaded capes created by Zulu artists in the country of South Africa.

The collection also includes a fine, diverse group of Kuba textiles produced by men and women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Where the power of art engages the spirit of community
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