Long-neglected art of Africa assumes its rightful place of honor at museum

The N.C. Museum of Art’s African Art Gallery features “Eleanor Hewitt” by Yinka Shonibare (foreground) and “Lines That Link Humanity” by El Anatsui (rear).
The N.C. Museum of Art’s African Art Gallery features “Eleanor Hewitt” by Yinka Shonibare (foreground) and “Lines That Link Humanity” by El Anatsui (rear). North Carolina Museum of Art

African art has come a long way since Picasso saw the 1907 exhibition of African objects in Paris’ Trocadero Ethnographic Museum.

What had been regularly relegated to museums of anthropology now has its place in the hallowed halls of art museums. Witness the entire first floor of the East Building of the North Carolina Museum of Arts now completely devoted to the art of Africa.

The story of art scholars and their ignorance about work from Africa goes back to the early days of colonialism when explorers and conquerors brought African objects back to Europe as souvenirs.

If the objects were made from important materials like ivory, gold and silver they would be shown next to Western paintings and sculpture and curiosities from the animal and mineral world. Meaning was ignored — only ownership was important.

In the 19th century, as if colonization and slavery had not destroyed any regard for the worth of African objects, there was also the scholarly classification that divided art and science and the natural from the human-made world. It was then that African artifacts ended up in ethnographic museums, where they were shamefully mislabeled. There was no scholarship to distinguish the artistic differences between the countries of Africa or for that matter between Africa and Southeast Asia.

Since the 1950s Africa has found its way into most art museums, but always seemingly out-of-place wherever it landed. That will no longer be the case at our state museum. The African collection will have an entire floor of the old (East) building and while it is separated from the main collection it definitely has a position of honor.

At a press preview I saw John Coffey, deputy director for art and curator of American and modern art, and Linda Dougherty, chief curator and curator of contemporary art, standing together and asked them how long the staff had been thinking about what would be the best way to make the East Building equal in importance to the new West Building even when there were no special exhibitions.

“A very long time,” they answered in unison. When I asked if it had been an “Aha” moment to house the African collection there, they said that decision came because African materials are constantly being acquired and the East Building has the perfect lighting controls to safely display such fragile artifacts as fabrics and costumes, key parts of African heritage and art.

At the end of the first floor, above the stairway, is a stunning “Masquerade Costume.” Beside it is a video of a dancer wearing the costume, calling attention to the use of the costume and to the patrons who bought the fine fabrics to create this extravagant object. It also reminds the audience that the art of Africa is a vibrant part of a human community and was never meant for display only.

In the beginning of the exhibition, there is a map of Africa and another one showing the gallery installation which is grouped by theme and location, like “Western” or “Central Africa” or “Divinely Regal: Western Africa” or “Modern to Contemporary.”

Just behind the stairwell is the core of the collection which spans 16 centuries and was created by a complicated and sophisticated society. Included are contemporary works, a palace door, masks and some pristine posts created to glorify special spirit gods. The posts were commissioned for a cultural center in Nigeria but were never used and come to the museum’s collection in untouched beauty.

The exhibition includes gold objects, usually communally owned, and a “Seated Male Figure,” c. 600, which is from a group of the oldest known ceramic figures of Western Africa, and is the oldest piece in the collection. Among contemporary works are a chalk drawing by Nigerian-American Victor Ekpuk made especially for this installation, Ghana-born El Anatsui’s large textile-like sculpture made of discarded aluminum and copper wire, which was a commission for the museum when the West Building opened, and Yinka Shonibare’s “Eleanor Hewitt” 2005, a fiberglass mannequin standing on stilts high above the crowd.

Most of the objects were created in the 20th century and are tradition based and can only be understood in the context of their use. For instance, the mask is always worn in a performance that carries on ancient traditions.

An ongoing area will be devoted to North Carolina collections and the first to be included are objects given to Bennett College by the estate of Warren M. Robbins, founder of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. One fine example is a delicately beaded skirt with a multiple diamond design in variegated colors.

A large space is devoted to interactive experiences where visitors can try their hand with techniques used by the African artists, like weaving on a floor-to-ceiling loom threaded with yarns from North Carolina sheep and goats.

With this collection now front and center, we must imagine each piece as playing a vital role in a human community — that the masks, for example, are not sculptures made for glass cases but were part of sacred ceremonies performed as a glorification to a god or spirit or to mark significant rites of passage.

This material covers an entire continent and, as visitors, we can see the expertise of the artists and how they differ from region to region; the fabrics on display give us a tiny glimpse into the originality of patterns that came from these areas. And all this beauty and craftsmanship flourished in spite of colonialism and slavery.

To my mind, the stars here are the drawing by Ekpuk and the sculpture by Anatsui. Ekpuk’s drawing shows an abstract figure cradling graphic symbols from diverse cultures in his arms, combining writing and art. Anatsui’s sculpture folds and undulates like fabric, but is made of metal bottle tops sewn together with copper wire. They have found their Africa with a contemporary voice.

NOTE TO READERS — This will be my last regular column. I will be writing occasionally for special art events, so keep me posted — Blue Greenberg,