African Gallery (installation)
- Dates: date unknown, 20th Century
- Collections: Arts of Africa
December 1994: The African galleries of The Brooklyn Museum will be significantly expanded with a major reinstallation of more than 250 treasures from the permanent collection, generally acknowledged to be one of the finest in the United States. Scheduled to open on March 9, the reinstallation will occupy over 7,100 square feet, including almost 2,400 additional square feet of gallery space. It permits the display of almost double the number of objects previously on view.
“The Brooklyn Museum’s African art collection is renowned worldwide for its breathtaking quality and good range. We are extremely pleased to give greater public access to this important collection by expanding the amount of space available for the presentation of many more of its masterpieces,” comments Robert T. Buck, Director of The Brooklyn Museum.
The reinstalled galleries will present a significant number of recently acquired objects and others that have not been on view for many years. Recent acquisitions include a Karanse mask of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso. These striking masks, with projections towering over six feet above the head, are worn in dances that honor a clan’s ancestors. A related mask, also from the Mossi, specifically honors female ancestors and is one of the rarest forms of Mossi masks. An elegantly carved wooden spoon with a handle incorporating a representation of a water buffalo, an iron altar from the Fon people of the Republic of Benin, and a large equestrian figure from an altar shrine of the Yoruba people of Nigeria are also on view for the first time. Other items on view for the first time in many years include an important Kuba mask from Zaire; a Chokwe mask with its complete costume, which was collected in the 1930s; a collection of ivory ornaments from Zaire; and a strikingly abstract female figure from the Bamana people of Mali.
Although a wide range of the more than 900 sub-Saharan African cultures will be represented in the reinstallation, it is especially strong in works from central Africa, particularly those from the Kongo, Luba, and Kuba peoples of Zaire.
The majority of the items on display were made to function within religious or political ceremonial life. Staffs of office and a spectacular beaded crown indicate political office and rank, while masks link the world of the living with the spirits of the worlds beyond. Wooden figures serve as a locus for honoring the dead or as a means of summoning spirits, which can protect the community from witchcraft and disease. Also included will be objects for daily use including textiles, jewelry, architectural elements, spoons, and containers.
The works in the galleries are arranged by cultural and geographic groupings. A special section of the gallery has been devoted to rotating thematic exhibitions. The first will show African furniture, including chairs, stools, headrests, doors, and ladders, all of which incorporate an elegant sense of design.
Although most of the objects in the reinstallation were created in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there are a number of earlier pieces, including an exquisitely crafted terracotta head, which may date as far back as the 11th century. One of the oldest surviving sculptures from West Africa, it is from the Ife Kingdom of Nigeria and is an idealized representation of the sacred king.
Especially noteworthy are two objects, the only ones of their kind in the United States—a carved ivory gong from the Edo people of the Benin Kingdom in the 16th or 17th century, one of the oldest surviving ivory African sculptures, and a wooden figure of King Mishe MiShyaang maMbul of the Kuba peoples of Zaire in the early 18th century. The latter is the earliest-known surviving example of a Ndop, a figure that represents the spirit double of a king.
The African collection at The Brooklyn Museum was begun by Stewart Culin, the first curator of ethnography. The hundreds of objects he acquired in 1922 from dealers and antique shops he visited in London, Brussels, and Paris form the core of today’s collection. In Belgium he acquired a collection of more than 1,500 objects assembled in the Congo region by a former Belgian colonial military officer.
Shortly after his return Culin organized the first major exhibition of African sculpture to be presented as art in [a] United States museum and authored an accompanying catalogue in which he wrote, “The entire collection, whatever may have been its original uses, is shown under the classification of art; as representing the creative impulse and not for the purposes of illustrating the customs of the African people....Of all the exotic arts...the writer regards it as most vital.”
When Stewart Culin died in 1929, the collection emphasis shifted to the Americas, and significant expansion of the African collection did not again occur until the mid-1950s. This expansion continues through the present.
The African reinstallation was organized by William C. Siegmann, curator of African art at The Brooklyn Museum. It has been made possible by a generous gift from the Leo and Julia Forchheimer Foundation in honor of Frieda Rosenthal.