We live in an era over-saturated with images. At home, at work, at rest, at play—screens replete with images follow us at every turn. Yet, adrift in this panoply, our ability to focus on concrete things, on objects, appears somehow correspondingly diminished.
Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Arts, the National Museum of African Art’s new permanent collection installation, is designed with the ubiquity of these habits in mind. Anticipating that such an exhibition may also constitute many visitors’ first direct experience with African art, Visionary aims to get visitors to stop and truly look at African objects with fresh and focused insight. In so doing, it is hoped, they will see art works—and each other—with new eyes.
Visionary is the largest long-term presentation of the National Museum’s collection to date. Built around the multiple lives of African objects, Visionary is organised around seven viewpoints, each of which serve to frame and affect the manner in which Africa’s arts are experienced. With a room devoted to each perspective, the installation presents the museum’s collection through the eyes of collectors, scholars, artists, sponsors, visitors, performers—and the museum itself. A range of interactive experiences within the gallery will connect visitors to the role such angles play in shaping our understanding of an object.
Featuring over 300 works of art, the exhibition takes as its central premise the primary museum activity of looking—looking closely at issues of technique and creative expression, looking historically at the varied lives these assembled objects have lived, and looking critically at how new contexts shift how we see art works. Visionary will occupy the entirety of the museum’s multi-story, second-floor gallery, covering nearly 6,000 square feet, re-anchoring the permanent collection at the heart of our programs and visitor experience.
Visionary aims to get visitors to stop and truly look at African objects with fresh and focused insight... to see art works—and each other—with new eyes.
Through the full range of media represented in the museum’s collection—assemblage, ceramics, costumes, drawing, jewellery, metalwork, sculpture, painting, performance, photography, printmaking, and video—visitors are encouraged to find visual and conceptual links between works by twenty-first and twentieth-century African artists and those made by earlier artistic predecessors. Through this re-imaging of the National Museum’s permanent collection, visitors are invited to expand their vision of what constitutes ‘art’, of how to engage an object, and of how to see past the contexts that shape art’s reception.
Visionary opens with a focus on the collection of Paul and Ruth Tishman—major mid-century New York collectors whose African art collection came to the Smithsonian by way of a gift from the Walt Disney Company in 2005—in a room dedicated to the perspective of collectors. The introductory gallery represents the full breadth of the range of cultural and formal expressions the Tishmans sought. Through the lens of collecting activities, visitors are introduced to African art works much the same way the Tishmans were initially—as objects of delight, inspiration, and wonder.
A magnificent butterfly mask by a Nuna artist, surmounted by independently sculpted birds and chameleons, greets visitors to the exhibition. A vision of new beginnings, such masks represented nature spirits combining human and animal forms, bridging earth and sky in celebrating the rains that started the farming season.
A regal ivory woman sculpted by an Edo artist, replete with the distinctive coral bead jewellery and crest hairstyle of an attendant to the queen mother, flanks the entrance to this section. She was likely originally commissioned for the altar of a previously deceased queen mother, within the queen mother’s palace in Benin City. She was also one of the first two African artworks that the Tishmans collected, indicative of both the aesthetic refinement and ecumenical scope they sought in building as comprehensive a collection of historical African art as possible.
An extremely rare mask by an Attié artist, likely commissioned as an expression of a wilderness spirit by members of the Do society seeking to ward off outside threats, is one of a tiny corpus of such masks known.
While the Tishman collection served as a vehicle of introductory delight to generations of African art enthusiasts, its expansive scope also made it a central resource for scholars seeking a corpus of related materials for consultation. Through the openness of the Tishmans and the Disney Company to scholarly researchers and the collection’s public accessibility by way of decades of publications and exhibitions, these works became a central resource in the development of African art history and the formation of stylistic canons.
The second gallery, also dedicated solely to Disney-Tishman objects, uses the lens of scholarship to look at how collections can be resources for insights into the artistic and social lives of African art works.
This gallery looks particularly closely at three sub-groups of objects within the Disney-Tishman collection: ivories, Yoruba works, and animal-skin covered masks from the Cross River region of Nigeria. Such skin-covered masks remain a particularly distinct holding within this collection and have been subject to much focused study. Scholar Keith Nicklin, a specialist of the masking traditions of southeastern Nigeria, speculated that one such mask is the work of Etim Bassey Ekpenyong, a distinguished Efik carver also credited with a mask that appears in the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939).
The work of scholarly research and engaged connoisseurship can often lead to the identification of artists’ hands. The next section of the installation, sited at the monumental center of the exhibition, looks at the role of artists as conduits of extraordinary technical skill and creative vision.
An extraordinarily captivating and charming headrest, attributed to the workshop of the Master of Mulongo, greets visitors to the entrance of this gallery. Labels address how its distinctive stylistic features allow connoisseurs to connect its origin to other works that came out of a mid-nineteenth century Luba atelier near Mulongo. It is a vision of the artistic insights around which the remainder of the exhibition pivots.
The section dedicated to artists continues with a focused discussion of the range of master nineteenth and twentieth-century Yoruba sculptors who trained generations of celebrated, named artists. A striking olójú fófóró mask attributed to Ajere Elewe is, for example, compared to a related, contemporary example, likely by Bamgboshe, as an example of the range of artistic expression available within a given genre.
This central gallery is completed and complimented by a discussion of the process of artistic training and apprenticeship practiced in Africa’s academic art programs in the twentieth century—particularly at the universities of Khartoum (Sudan) and Nskukka (Nigeria). One of many works in the museum’s collections by the master artist El Anatsui, ‘Earth-Moon Connexions’ is presented as emblematic of both the flowering of Anatsui’s own personal style while teaching at Nsukka and of his role as mentor to succeeding generations of artists emerging from the Nsukka school. Uniquely, the installation will include work from three generations of Nsukka school artists.
From Western collections, through the eyes of scholars who have in some cases recovered the hands of individual artists, to a celebration of artistic agency and insight, a visitor’s path now turns back to the original, local contexts in which African art works were created. The next gallery examines the role of sponsors, and the particular problems that art works were originally designed to solve in communicating with intended viewers—in this world, or the next.
Art has the capacity to tell a range of stories and is limited only by human imagination. This room features three primary contexts toward which such objects were initially addressed: political, religious, and personal. Men and women commissioned these works from artists in order to support political authority, to establish connections with a realm beyond our own or, simply, to look fabulous.
Communication with the realm beyond takes on a range of forms. In creating this nkondi kiditu a Kongo artist fully embodied the figurative concept of communion with the divine. Ali Omar Ermes on the other hand, uses the expressive potential of the Arabic letter ق (qāf)—the first consonant in the first word received in the transmission of the Qur’an to Mohammed—to express the potential of language and poetry to convey “light to the human mind, just as fire, in total darkness, is light for the human eye.”
A unique and evocative figure of a man riding a buffalo by a Pende artist, in turn, brings the concept of protection from terror onto another level. In 18th- and 19th-century central Africa, traders in human captives rode oxen from Portuguese slave trade centres on the coast into Angola and the Congo River basin. Perhaps this figure represents such a trader, or possibly the power of a Pende leader to protect his people from the slave trade. When seen frontally, the man’s legs disappear into those of the buffalo’s. A graceful glé mask by a Dan artist , on the other hand, represents a vision of refinement and poise, bringing tranquility to a community. Emerging from forest shadows, the bright band of white pigment around its eyes may have signalled the mask’s capacity for insight into the realm beyond human perception.
Bridging the previous section, on the original lives that African objects lived on the continent, with one looking at the circulation patterns that then set them into motion, visitors are encouraged first to stop into the 'Looking Lab' and take a moment for active, close looking.
The best African art works reward close examination with new, surprising features that may not have been apparent at first glance. By giving visitors focused invitations to look for details like colour and pattern, gesture and expression, proportion, scale, materials, and style, and they have the opportunity here to learn to see as artists do. A range of physical, interactive, and didactic activities—from invitations to feel the differences in various sample surfaces or to read colour and light scales, for example—will encourage visitors to understand universal formal elements all visual artists address. Label text, along with the museum’s own 'Looking at African Art' guide, will further direct visitors to discover visual elements specific to African objects.
A mask by a Bété artist with a garish glare is presented alongside a discussion of expression. Visitors are invited to imagine its large, projecting eyes glaring at them from underneath the massive, furrowed brow—and to think about the message its open, gaping mouth is trying to convey. Such a mask is, after all, deliberately unsettling. Embodying powerful spiritual forces associated with the forest, it may have appeared among Bété communities to settle disputes, or to lead battles. Its expression is one of political power won through coercion and disruption. A wonderfully tactile figure, likely associated with the Mani-Yanda association and created by a Zande artist, in turn, is framed around a discussion of texture. Visitors will have the opportunity to touch a portion of a reproduction that replicates elements of its pleasingly complex surface.
If visitors have, up to this point, been engaged primarily in a (more typical) passive art-museum experience—visually scanning objects, (hopefully) reading labels, or sharing images and selfies online—it is hoped that the ‘Looking Lab’ will at least partially reverse this process, and encourage closer experiences with objects.
Equipped with an understanding of who made such works, why they were made, and some of the lives they since lived off the African continent—as well new, critical eyes looking for key details—visitors entering the penultimate section of the show are now treated to the experiential realities of objects. Rooted in the practices of performers, this gallery looks at how objects and ideas can be both the subjects, objects, and products of wide-ranging, often global, exchanges.
Throughout history, few of Africa’s arts have been idle. Musical instruments vibrate with sound during performances; masquerade arts dance in multi-sensory settings; stunning weights and currency objects circulate along trade routes; sculptures are marched in processions or manipulated to reach their full capabilities; paintings get loaned on exhibition; and, videos flicker across time. Africa’s artists cross borders, and their influence travels. Individuals and communities migrate, follow commercial opportunities, and share ideas, materials, techniques, and styles. The works of art in this gallery reflect such ongoing journeys across time and space—and move us in the here and now.
A distinctive mask by an Idoma or Akweya artist anchors the corner of this space addressing masquerade as performance art. As the mask features a blending of styles that originated along the Benue River, an area where the arts move across ethnic divisions and between several men’s associations, it also serves to reinforce the broader conceptual aim of this section. A large-scale painting by South African artist Gavin Jantjes, depicting Khoi San dancers celebrating the origins of the heavens, has travelled on behalf of the National Museum in five previous exhibitions—becoming an unofficial travelling ambassador in its new, museum life.
Visionary concludes with a nod toward the most recent life each of these objects have come to lead—as museum objects.
Asking visitors finally to think critically about the lens they are currently experiencing, ‘Museum Insights’ considers how museums do the work of connecting more closely to objects. The formation and ongoing development of a museum collection relies upon the solid scholarship, eye for quality, and technical expertise that curators and conservators bring to their work. This room includes a changing display of recent acquisitions and a selection of objects that reflect the research and collecting interests of former and current museum staff members, as well as the generosity of donors who chose to share their passion for the arts of Africa with the world.
This section will present regularly rotating selections of new acquisitions for the collection. One of the inaugural showpieces will be a pair of figural slit gong finials by an Mbembe artist—reunited and presented in their original alignment for the first time. The female member of this pair had been a key work in the museum’s collection for over thirty years when it appeared in a small exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 2014 with a work that appeared to be her mate. Later conservation and curatorial research proved that they are, indeed, a match. The male figure was generously donated to the museum last year, and premiers as a full back-to-back composition, in its reunited state, with Visionary’s opening.
‘Womanology 12’ (2015), a stunning new work by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, a globally celebrated British painter of Ghanaian descent, stands as the show’s signature image. A confident woman in a scarlet dress and matching hat emerges from a swirling backdrop of blue and black. She holds in her hands a pair of binoculars as she looks purposefully off into the distance—unaware or unconcerned that someone may be looking at her. Yiadom-Boakye’s large-scale images are not portraits. Instead, they represent fictional characters within an emerging world developed and shared by the artist. Her titles seem to heighten the tension between the reality and fiction of her characters. ‘Womanology 12’ suggests there might be earlier works in a series we have yet to encounter. The artist has dropped us into the middle of a story for which we must envision the past and future.
Similarly, the exhibition’s seven featured perspectives offer new insights into the National Museum’s permanent collection—a collection that has, for over half a century, helped to shape what the world knows and values about Africa’s arts. With dedicated space for periodic rotations featuring new acquisitions, Visionary will offer a new and evolving stage on which to see Africa’s past and imagine its future.
Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Arts at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution opened 04 November 2017 and is a permanent exhibition.
Kevin D. Dumouchelle joined the National Museum of African Art as curator in October 2016. From 2007 to 2016, he was the Brooklyn Museum’s curator in charge of African and Pacific Islands collections. At Brooklyn, he conceived two award-winning re-installations of the African collection: 'African Innovations' (2011) and 'Double Take: African Innovations' (2014). He has written books and articles and curated a range of exhibitions on both contemporary and historical African art, including “Power Incarnate: Allan Stone’s Collection of Sculpture from the Congo” (2011) at the Bruce Museum and the Brooklyn Museum presentations of 'Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui' (2013) and 'Disguise: Masks and Global African Art' (2016).