October 1989: The Brooklyn Museum will open its newly renovated and expanded galleries for the display of works drawn from its permanent collection of African art on October 27, 1989. The refurbished galleries comprise 140 works and include architectural elements, ceremonial and household objects, figurative sculpture, jewelry, masks and textiles. The reinstallation features some outstanding recent acquisitions as well as a number of pieces that have not been on view for many years.
The space devoted to the reinstalled African Galleries, located on the first floor, has been redesigned and enlarged approximately fifty percent to allow for the placement of freestanding cases, which provide for the display of many of the works in the round and enable objects to be selectively highlighted. The new design will also make it possible to rotate works on view more easily so that more of the Museum’s African holdings can be seen by visitors.
The Brooklyn Museum began collecting African art in 1922 and the following year organized the first major exhibition of African art in an American museum. Its African holdings number more than 3,000 objects and consist largely of sculptural works that were produced primarily by settled agricultural peoples living south of the Sahara Desert. These comprise a multitude of media and include bronze, clay, gold, raffia (palm fiber), ivory, stone and wood. The collection spans over 600 years of Africa’s rich artistic tradition. Although the history of African art goes back much further in time, many works were produced in wood or other perishable materials and what has survived dates primarily from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The works in the new African Galleries are installed geographically according to five principal regions: the Western Sudan, the Western Guinea Coast, the Eastern Guinea Coast, the Central African Equatorial Forest and the Southern Savanna. Within these geographic regions objects are arranged by cultural groups.
Notable among the important works on view are a pair of wood headdresses used by the Tje Wara agricultural society of the Western Sudan in their planting and harvesting festivals, dating from the 19th century. From the Western Guinea Coast four gold pendants from the Akan culture, dating from the 19th century, and a wooden staff covered in gold leaf from the Fanti people in Ghana, dating from the 20th century, are exceptional.
The Eastern Guinea Coast, encompassing the Benin, Yoruba, Ogbo, Idoma and the cultures of the Cameroon Highlands, has a rich and prolific artistic tradition. Some of the works worthy of note from this region include a wood door with figurative sculpture in low relief, dating from the 19th or early 20th century, and two painted wood houseposts from the Yoruba culture, dating from the 19th century; an outstanding example of the famous bronzes of the Benin Kingdom of southern Nigeria in the form of a brass figure of a hornblower, dating from the 17th century; two bronze plaques from the royal palace at Benin commemorating events from a king’s reign, dating from the 16th-17th century; a terracotta commemorative head of a king of Ife, the oldest object on view in the African Galleries and on loan from The Guennol Collection, dating from the 13th century; a beaded crown from Nigeria worn by a Yoruba king on ceremonial occasions, dating from the 19th century; a beaded mask representing an elephant from the Bameleke people, dating from the early 20th century; and a painted Tikar headdress of wood and basketry from the Cameroon Highlands, dating from the 19th century.
From the Central African Equatorial Forest region are two reliquary figures in wood carved with brass on copper and a male reliquary figure in wood from the Kota people, dating from the 19th century; and from the Kongo society a stone grave marker in the form of a chief smoking a pipe and a male figure carved in wood with nails, both dating from the 19th century.
Deserving of special mention from the Southern Savanna region are a group of four superb raffia textiles from the Kuba kingdom of Zaire, dating from the 20th century, which were a gift of The Roebling Society this year; a bow rest in wood carved with a female figure and three wood and metal staffs of office ornately carved with female figures, which were all used by Luba chiefs and date from the 19th century; a maternity figure in wood depicting a woman holding a child and used by the Luluwa women in fertility rites, dating from the 19th century; and the oldest wood sculpture in the Museum’s African holdings, a rare commemorative figure of a king from the Kuba people, dating from the 17th century.
The reinstallation of the African Galleries was made possible by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. It was coordinated by William Siegmann, Associate Curator in the Department of African, Oceanic, and New World Art.
Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1989 - 1994. 1989, 150-153.