The sad thing about museum exhibitions is that we just can’t visit every ‘must see’ show before they close. Worst still, some iconic shows ended before we were even born! That’s the case with the landmark exhibition “African Negro Art” held at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) March 18 to May 19, 1935… well before our time. The exhibition was instrumental in shaping public perception of traditional African art in the West, as not merely ethnographic and historical artefacts but as classic works of art. Up until this point, the only way of reliving what must have been a truly magical viewing experience was to purchase the book “African Negro Art” by museum curator James Johnson Sweeney.
Well, thanks to technology (thanks internet!), MoMA has made its entire exhibition archive, from its first exhibition in 1929 through to today, available online for free public viewing. Unlimited access of this magnitude is unprecedented. Many museums have digitised their collections—images of individual objects—but MoMA’s approach of showcasing the exhibition installation itself is unique, as one ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA reader put it “I’m freaking out, this is so cool!” What’s even better is that in addition to the exhibition images, MoMA has also made exhibition catalogues, object checklists and exhibition press releases available as PDF downloads.
So to get you to the good stuff, we’ve identified the African art exhibitions available to view in the MoMA archives.
On February 27, 1935, MoMA closed its doors in preparation for a historic exhibit. Curator James Johnson Sweeney organised the exhibition “African Negro Art“, what is now thought of as one of the most important classic African art museum shows in modern history. Curating pieces from a number of famous collections including those of Charles Ratton, Helena Rubinstein and the Museum für Volkerkunde, the exhibition was intended to increase awareness of African art and to demonstrate its influence on contemporary European and American artists. Commenting about the exhibition, art critic James Sweeney said that “the art of the primitive negro in its mastery of aesthetic forms, sensitiveness to materials, freedom from naturalistic imitation and boldness of imagination parallels many of the ideals of modern art. We find many characteristics of Epstein’s work and that of several other modern sculptors and painters such as Picasso, Modigliani and Brancusi, that point to their respect for African art“.
The installation showcased over 600 objects from West Central Africa including a Chi Wara antelope headdress from Mali, a Nimba fertility headdress from Guinea, a Kple Kple entertainment mask from Ivory Coast and an Uhunmwun Elao ancestral memorial head from Nigeria. Once only available in print, the book accompanying the exhibition is now available to download as a PDF file, as is the master checklist of objects.
Walker Evans was commissioned by the museum to photograph a selection of objects on display, you can view some of his images in the Grand Street publication “The African Negro Art Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, 1935“.
The press release of the MoMA 1952 exhibition, “Understanding African Negro Sculpture“, stated that the show featuring “a series of photographic studies are the work of “Life” photographer Eliot Elisofon. Two of the original sculptures in the exhibition are from Mr. Elisofon’s own collection and these appear side by side with their owner’s photographic analyses of their form.”
The show featured figures, masks, objects and field photos from the Dogon, Lulua, Senufo and Luba. Although not all objects are shown in the exhibition page, the object master checklist gives interesting insight into what would have been displayed at the show.
Over 300 thousand additional field photos by Eliot Elisofon can be browsed on the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the National Museum of African Art.
We don’t yet have any ‘Discover’ articles about African textiles (a gap we intend to fill in the future), but this MoMA 1973 exhibition on “African Textiles and Decorative Arts” gives us a glimpse into the vast and colourful world of African textiles, jewellery and costumes. Over 250 examples from more than 26 countries were on view in this showcase of African creativity in everyday garments through to royal regalia.
The full catalogue of the exhibition can be viewed here.
Pablo Picasso was known to have an impressive traditional African art collection. This collection, particularly African masks, influenced much of his work including his painting of Marie-Thérèse Walter, “Femme Assise Près d’une Fenêtre” (believed to be influenced by the Baga Nimba headdress).
MoMA’s “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art” aimed to demonstrate the influence tribal arts from Africa, Oceania and North America had on modern artists. More than 200 objects were displayed including, masks and sculptures from the personal collections of Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Derain, Nolde, Ernst and Matta. These objects were combined with the modern paintings that took inspiration from them. The book accompanying the exhibition is also made available for digital download… unfortunately (for us mere English speakers at least), the PDFs are only available in Japanese, French and Italian.
There were a number of additional exhibitions featuring a smaller number of African art objects. You can dig into those by searching for ‘Africa’ in the Exhibition History page on MoMA’s website.
To learn more about the archive project, you can read the New York Times article “MoMA Will Make Thousands of Exhibition Images Available Online“.