Founded by Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908–1979) in 1954, the Museum of Primitive Art (MPA) was the first museum in the United States dedicated to art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas—it housed over 3,000 objects from the Rockefeller collection. Despite the name of the museum, Nelson Rockefeller’s aim was to showcase the beauty of pieces created by artists from these regions. Inspired by MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art), Nelson Rockefeller wanted to drive a shift in perception of these objects from ‘ethnographic artefacts’ to ‘artworks’.
In his own words, Nelson A. Rockefeller, President and Founder of the MPA said that he was “irresistibly drawn to [African, Oceanic, and pre-Columbian artworks] by their directness, their vitality and their strong sense of style. The small collection inevitably grew larger. It seemed to me that here were sculptures that had something to say to our own time, whose inner strength and expressiveness had an affinity with the best of twentieth-century art. Here were works of art that should be known to a larger public. The private collection therefore became the founding nucleus of The Museum of Primitive Art… At the time of its opening, I formulated the Museum’s purpose in these words: ‘To integrate primitive art into what is already known of the arts of man, to select objects of outstanding beauty and to exhibit them so that they may be enjoyed in the fullest measure.’”
In 1969, The Metropolitan Museum agreed to acquire the complete collection from the MPA—in essence, the MPA (which closed in 1974) was the 'ancestor' of today's Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (AOAA) at The Met. The collection transfer ultimately led to the creation of the Michael C. Rockefeller wing at The Met, unveiled to the public in 1982.
“Knowledge of [primitive art] use and setting is just as essential to its understanding as it is to the arts of any other time and culture.”—Robert Goldwater, Chairman of the Administrative Committee, The Museum of Primitive Art
For the first time, 72 catalogues from past MPA exhibitions (between 1955 – 1975) have been digitised and made available for free on The Metropolitan Museum of Art Online Libraries. Below, we highlight the exhibition catalogues dedicated to classic African art, in a bid to help you better understand the masterpieces that today make up the collection at The Met.
“Last November, a workman levelling a low mound at Ife Yemoo on the outskirts of the town of lfe came upon a group of ancient works of art. Archaeological excavation added to their number. These were the latest finds from the ancient city of Ife, older than Benin, and the traditional religious center of Nigeria.
They are exhibited here through the generosity of His Highness the Oni of lfe, Sir Adesoji Aderemi, P.C., K.B.E., C.M.G. The Museum wishes to thank His Highness for the opportunity of showing those rare and significant works in the United States, before they go back to their own country.” — Nelson A. Rockefeller
“After four exhibitions drawn from its permanent collection, The Museum of Primitive Art is very happy to present this, its first loan show. Given the wealth and variety of the private collections of primitive art in the United States, the Museum decided to devote this exhibition to African art from New York collections. Even here, rigid selection imposed itself, due to limitations of space. The Museum wishes to thank the collectors who have made this exhibition possible, both for their generosity in lending their works and for their understanding of our necessities. Their cooperation and comprehension have been complete, and we are most grateful.” — Nelson A. Rockefeller
“Among the more recent, still extant cultures and tribes of Africa, it seemed for a while as if there were little possibility of the discovery of unfamiliar kinds of objects, much less of new styles. No longer the dark continent, Africa appeared to have revealed the variety of its art, especially since in a great many areas the traditional carver no longer practiced his sculpture. Happily this has proven not to he the ease. Of the three tribes whose works are shown here, some work was known (more from the Senufo than from either the Baga or the Dogon), enough so that there was an image of their art. But in each case recent discoveries have enlarged that image. and for the Dogon have given as material for tentative historical hypotheses.” — Robert Goldwater
“The tribal art of Africa has produced a wealth of traditional forms, many in styles which are now famous outside the continent; the art styles of some areas, however, are still scarcely known.
Sculpture of Northern Nigeria throws new light on two of these obscure areas, both near the Benue River of Nigeria. The history of the region is one of migrations and cross-currents of conquest ending only in the last century; but despite the shattering impact of such upheavals, the tribes about the Benue River have maintained strong artistic traditions. These traditions have few affinities with the well-known tribal styles of southern Nigeria, but seem rather to be related to western Sudanic forms.” — The Museum of Primitive Art
“For every style, and every period, in the history of the arts of mankind, a few works stand out above the rest. Somehow they both contain and surpass all these qualities which we value in the art of the culture from which they come. They seem to have captured the ideal of design and expression toward which many artists tended. We refer to these works as classic examples of their kind, and they impress themselves upon our memory with a particular clarity.
The GREAT BIERI is such a work: it is the embodiment of Fang sculpture, and one of the great classics of African art.” — Robert Goldwater
“The Senufo people, numbering nearly one million, live in the northern Ivory Coast and southern parts of Mali and Upper Volta, and are divided into some twenty-five sub-tribes. Like their neighbors, they are an agricultural people, whose religious and social organization is largely built around an initiation society, properly called “Lo” (but often loosely referred to as “Poro”), to which every male must belong, beginning in adolescence and passing through several grades. At each stage, performance of appropriate rituals (known only to the members of the society) having mythological references ensures the continued harmony of the people within the universe.” — The Museum of Primitive Art
“The objects in this exhibition should not be regarded as a consciously formed collection of primitive sculpture. Chosen for inclusion because, broadly speaking, they fall within the Museum’s range, they are part of a seemingly more heterogeneous whole, containing not only modern sculpture, drawings and paintings, but Ancient, Mediaeval and Oriental objects which by no argument could be called “primitive.” I am not ashamed to state that my reaction to any work of art, primitive or otherwise, is primarily sensuous-l find it hard to judge the extent to which my emotions play a part-and that in my art acquisitions I am essentially eclectic, intuition largely taking the place of intellect. The result, after 30 odd years, is a collection only in the literal sense, unless it be found that a strong predilection has of itself produced the cohesion usually regarded as the essense of a “collection”.” — Robert J. Sainsbury
“The art of Africa south of the Sahara is made up of many styles. Each of its primarily agricultural societies, necessarily organized in small economic and political units, developed a distinctive mode of expression, intimately connected with a local culture.” — Robert Goldwater
“The formation of my collection of ancient and tribal art originated in a style as far removed from the present areas as one may possibly imagine that of collecting oriental carvings of the 18th through 20th centuries.
Mention of this is made by way of introducing one of my principal reasons for accepting the opportunity and challenge of exhibiting my objects. I hope, in exposing my collection to public scrutiny, I may encourage others to charge boldly into the cultural world, no matter which doorway to this world they may choose.
Another major reason for exhibiting these objects is born of my sincere respect for the peoples whose artistry achieved these monumental ends. l trust that eventually this material-mine and others may be judged with less intellectual prejudice and greater artistic discernment, to the end that excellent ancient and tribal art objects may be recognized as having a vitality, and importance, equal to those great works of western art with which we are more familiar.” — Jay C. Leff
“This exhibition is devoted to figure sculpture from the Congo as it is represented in the collection of Clark and Frances Stillman. They have assembled it. over more than three decades. with a systematic, scholarly care and esthetic discernment that offer the very best in connoisseurship and collectlng. Nearly all of the objects date from the last century. a few are said to be even older and all bear traces of long handling and usage within the culture from which they stem. For these reasons the Museum is particularly pleased to present the Stillman collection to the public. The importance of this occasion is further enhanced by the fact that this is the first comprehensive exhibition of Congo sculpture in the United States since the Brooklyn Museum Exhibition of 1923.” — Tamara Northren
“Primitive man faced the mysteries of lite with fear, bewilderment and reverence. He could not understand the great forces of nature-fire, wind, rain and fertility-He was awed by the great events within his own existence birth, dreams, sickness and death.
He answered these mysteries with ritual and sometimes with cruelty. Secret societies were formed and rulers chosen. Gods were placated by ceremonial dances. Crops grew, children were born, rains came it the proper idols were worshipped or the right ceremonial masks and garb were worn.
The sculptures and masks which supported his ceremonial rites were essential to his endurance. With them, his fears were contained and the demons of the unknown warded off: with them. while life retained its mystery, he at least felt he was better able to control his environment.
Objects which have served for ceremonial purposes or which were symbols of distinction for tribal rulers possess a mystic dignity as timeless as man’s fear of the unknown. Their simple and direct expression gives them a life of their own which makes the viewer feel the purpose for which they were created.
We are most grateful to The Museum of Primitive Art for giving us the opportunity to share with others an interest which means so much to us. We are also grateful to those unknown men whose work is exhibited here.” — Gustave Schindler
“Our first piece of African tribal sculpture was a chance purchase. I had accompanied an art historian friend of mine on his visit to the leading dealer in primitive art in New York and was attracted by the charm of a Bambara antelope carrying her young on her back. Our son had just been born, and the carving seemed a fitting present for my wife, who shared my delight in this acquisition. Over time there followed more visits to the same store (a veritable treasure trove). to the shops of other dealers, to museums, private collections, auctions and libraries, and a growing excitement about the scope and impact of this art form.” — Ernst Anspach
“The collection of Mr. Herbert Baker has been in formation since 1950, although his interest in the field dates back to many years earlier; probably it was inspired in the first place by his earliest experience in the tropics during World War II service. Large selections from the collection have been shown at Lake Forest College; The Museum of African Art, Washington, D. C.; and The Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum, Kansas City. Smaller groups or individual pieces have made public appearances at The Art Institute of Chicago; The Robert H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology; The Museum of Primitive Art; and many others.” — Douglas Newton
“Robert Goldwater’s passing is a sad loss for the world of art, and particularly for all who personally knew and admired this great critic and scholar.
Dr. Goldwater’s pioneering research and writing on the role of primitive art in the development of modern art were at once widely recognized as landmarks. Undertaken when both these forms of art were still relatively unfamiliar, his work broadened the general appreciation of both fields. His activity at The Museum of Primitive Art, first as one of its organizers in the early stages, and later as its Director for many years, continued this important effort.
More recently, Dr. Goldwater was deeply engaged with the planning of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, which will be part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and form the permanent home of The Museum of Primitive Art’s collection. It is tragic that he is no longer with us to organize and direct its completion. All of us who shared his concerns are fortunate to have known him as colleague, guide, and friend. He is deeply missed.” — Nelson A. Rockefeller
“Many peopIes of southeastern Nigeria associate the right Hand with a man’s personal strength, with his aggressiveness, skill in hunting, trade and war. A man establishes a shrine to the spirit of his right Hand and offers sacrifices to it in thanks for past successes and to assure future ones.
This exhibition presents shrines to the Hand from the lower Niger area, the only part of Africa in which they are made. With examples from the lbo, Igala, Urhobo, ljo, Bini, and Ishan peoples and from the court of Benin, the exhibition illustrates the consistency of a particular belief over a wide area and the diversity of forms through which it is expressed.” — Susan Vogel
“The Museum of Primitive Art was founded in 1954 to foster the understanding and enjoyment of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Precolumbian Americas.
This has been done through acquisition, preservation and display of the Museum’s unique collections at the Museum and through loans to exhibitions held by museums, art galleries and schools throughout the United States.
It is a gratifying measure of the response to The Museum of Primitive Art’s aims that a large selection of its finest works is now to be circulated by The American Federation of Arts to several of the country’s great museums. I am confident that these works will be greeted with merited recognition of their high place among the arts of the world.” — Nelson A. Rockefeller