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Art Gallery the Eye and the Hand

Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C

Treasures marks the National Museum of African Art's 25th anniversary as a Smithsonian museum. The first in a new exhibition series, Treasuresis an old-fashioned show about African art, reminiscent of the exhibitions that represented avant-garde opinions of the early 20th century. In 1926, Paul Guillaume, Parisian connoisseur and collector, cautioned readers to defer learning about the history and meaning of African art until they had studied African art purely as an art form, because to do otherwise "tends to obscure one's vision of the objects as sculpture."

I chose the familiar--traditional sculpture--to reveal aesthetic variances, to see African art as form, not function. Treasures, therefore, is about visual exploration and aesthetic discovery. Our understanding of African art is prescribed by what we see, and often, what we see is based on works displayed in museums. So, "Treasures" is just that--a sampling that gives us a peek into the realm of African art.

Westerners and Africans alike revere well-made form. Each admires skillful technique and execution, exquisitely rendered forms, pattern, balance, symmetry, surface treatments and a sense of completeness. African artists, however, strive to portray more than that. As metaphor or symbol, their artworks embody the world of ideas and beliefs--confirming their notions about themselves, life and death, the universe and the spiritual realm. Yet, despite our cultural presumptions that separate art from life, often separating aesthetics from meaning, and our ignorance of or indifference to what it means and how it is used, African art astonishes.

An eclectic display of sculptures from East, West, Central, and southern Africa created between the 15th and 20th centuries, Treasures reflects individual choices and aesthetic preferences, mostly masks and statuary. Treasuresthe exhibition encompasses all the word denotes--rarity and value, uniqueness and preciousness, and stylistically distinctive works. Included are: works that have never or have seldom been exhibited in the United States; works that have never been published; three renowned Yoruba artists, Olowe (c. 1875‚1938), Areogun (c. 1880‚1954) and Bamgboye (c. 1895‚1978); and works whose collection histories are complete (e.g., the Bamum male figure and Olowe's bowl with figures) or are historically significant.

Many of the works on exhibit in Treasureswere on view in several exhibitions that planted the seeds of abstract modernism in the United States. Mexican artist Marius de Zayas, Parisian Paul Guillaume and Parisian dealer Charles Ratton were not only avid collectors of African art, but vigorous advocates for the inclusion of African art as part of art appreciation. Their efforts resulted in pivotal exhibitions in New York City in the early 20th century. In 1914 Zayas convinced Alfred Steiglitz, pioneering photographer and founder of the gallery "291," to exhibit 18 sculptures from Guillaume's collection of African art. A year later, when Zayas became part owner of the Modern Gallery, which was central to the modernist movement, he organized the second, more important exhibition of African art, African Negro Wood Sculptures. American painter and photographer Charles Sheeler documented the works in a limited edition folio of the same name in 1918. And, in 1935, Ratton supported and lent 62 sculptures to the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition African Negro Art, which with the above-mentioned exhibitions, validated African art's position within the critical mainstream of American modernism.

Still other works on exhibit in Treasureswere owned by champions of modernism in the United States and Paris. For instance, Ratton owned two Fang reliquary guardian figures and the Hongwe reliquary guardian figure now in the collection of the National Museum of African Art. Guillaume and later Ratton owned the Baule female figure. Art patron Agnes E. Meyer purchased the Fang reliquary guardian figure (and possibly the Kongo kneeling female figure and child) from the Modern Gallery exhibit in 1915. Both these works were given to the museum in 1972.

Treasures reflects the continuing tradition of exhibiting African art as art and the important role private collectors have in shaping our perceptions about African art. For the past 90 years, Africa's rich repository of diverse and sophisticated forms, designs and compositions has enhanced the art and museum worlds. By presenting African art as an ensemble of visual delights, a trove of treasures, we comprehend what Robert Farris Thompson terms "purity of presence." As the Yoruba say, "Anyone who meets beauty and does not look at it will soon be poor."


At once beautiful, protective, seductive, and dangerous, the water spirit Mami Wata (Mother Water) is celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African Atlantic. A rich array of arts surrounds her, as well as a host of other aquatic spirits--all honoring the essential, sacred nature of water. Mami Wata is often portrayed as a mermaid, a snake charmer, or a combination of both. She is widely believed to have "overseas" origins, and her depictions have been profoundly influenced by representations of ancient, indigenous African water spirits, European mermaids, Hindu gods and goddesses, and Christian and Muslim saints. She is not only sexy, jealous, and beguiling but also exists in the plural, as the mami watas and papi watas who comprise part of the vast and uncountable "school" of African water spirits.

Mami Wata's presence is pervasive partly because she can bring good fortune in the form of money. As a "capitalist" deity par excellence, her persona developed between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, the era of growing trade between Africa and the rest of the world. Her very name, which may be translated as "Mother Water," is pidgin English, a language developed to facilitate trade. Countless enslaved Africans forcibly brought to the Americas as part of this "trade" carried with them their beliefs, practices, and arts honoring water spirits such as Mami Wata. Reestablished, revisualized, and revitalized in the African Atlantic, Mami Wata emerged in new communities and under different guises, among them Lasirèn, Yemanja, Santa Marta la Dominadora, and Oxum. African--based faiths honoring these manifestations of Mami Wata continue to flourish in communities throughout the Americas, including Haiti, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic.

This exhibition explores the visual cultures and histories of Mami Wata, examining the world of water deities and their seductive powers. It demonstrates how art both reflects and actively contributes to beliefs and religious practices, globalization, and capitalism. Most of all, it reveals the potency of images and ideas to shape the lives of people, communities, and societies.

Mami Wata is a complex symbol with so many resonances that she feeds the imagination, generating, rather than limiting, meanings and significances. She is at once a nurturing mother; sexy mama; provider of riches; healer of physical and spiritual ills; and embodiment of dangers and desires, risks and challenges, dreams and aspirations, fears and forebodings. People are attracted to the seemingly endless possibilities she represents and, at the same time, frightened by her destructive potential. She inspires a vast array of emotions, attitudes, and actions among those who worship her, fear her, study her, and create works of art about her.

Mami Wata and the innumerable mami and papi wataspirits have many faces, and their identities rarely remain constant. As conditions change, so do the attributes, personalities, and actions of these fascinating and enigmatic water spirits. When taken together, the case studies presented in this section reveal striking differences, as well as remarkable similarities, in the beliefs and expressive arts for Mami Wata and her cohorts in Africa.

As with the arts dedicated to her, the worship of Mami Wata as a specific spiritual entity is not a unified, homogenous phenomenon. Instead, it reveals an extremely diverse and fluid set of beliefs and practices that both reflect and guide social and religious worlds. There are many expressions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths, and this is perhaps even more true of the worship of Mami Wata and water spirits in Africa.

Sacred waters bathe the histories of African peoples--waters of life, departure, and return. Sometimes they appear as tears of deep sorrow, sometimes as soothing and cooling streams sustaining existence and hope. Water connects world with otherworld, life with afterlife. Among Africans dispersed across vast oceans, these waters are emblematic of the ultimate journey back home to Africa and all those distant yet living ancestors. In Haiti, it is the journey home to Guinee across the rippling boundary of existence, imagined as a vast expanse of water that exists between life and afterlife. This is the abode of Lasirèn, La Baleine, Agwe, Simbi, Yemanja, Watra Mama, and all the water divinities of Africa and the African Atlantic. Their names are regularly invoked to strengthen the determination needed to endure the hardships and challenges of lives scattered and torn asunder by the avarice, arrogance, and brutality of those who would enslave others for their own benefit. The arts for African Atlantic gods and goddesses evoke complex emotions, hopes, and dreams as well as fears and nightmares. They may recall a sorrowful, troubled past, yet they offer hope and inspiration for a better future and the promise of an afterlife.

In addition to their continually transforming histories of influence in Africa and its diasporas, Mami Wata and other African and African Atlantic water spirits have gained an even wider audience, as well as new meanings and import, by capturing the imaginations of a number of contemporary artists. This section of the exhibition features the work of several artists--men and women from Africa, Europe, North America, and the Caribbean--who have found in Mami Wata and her cohorts a highly intriguing subject matter. Even though they may not worship her, Mami Wata has entered the dreams and waking hours of these artists, seducing them into creating extraordinary works that open our eyes, minds, and imaginations to wonderful possibilities. The unique understandings and involvements of contemporary artists with water spirits also allow them to employ Mami Wata and other underwater denizens to address issues of gender, race, morality, identity, economics, environment, and politics.

Often appearing with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish, Mami Wata straddles earth and water, culture and nature. She may also take the form of a snake charmer, sometimes in combination with her mermaid attributes and sometimes separate from them. She can exist in the form of indigenous African water spirits known as mami watas and papi watas or assume aspects of a Hindu deity or a Christian saint without sacrificing her identity.

This section of the exhibition presents a broad overview of some of the movements, images, and ideas that have played major roles in the arts for Mami Wata. These include African images celebrating ancient and indigenous water spirits, global examples that demonstrate the transcultural nature of Mami Wata, and contemporary ideological and theological controversies concerning good and evil.


Artful Animals
July 1, 2009--February 21, 2010

Artful Animals, an exhibition dedicated to young audiences, explores how African artists create striking works of art using images from an array of domestic and untamed animals. From rock art to contemporary painting, audiences will discover animals used as symbols of royal arts, in masquerades for the ancestors and others rarely seen. Many of the elements of design are derived through direct observation of the animals in their natural habitat. It is the animal's conduct and distinct behaviors that carry the messages in performances, stories and proverbs. The approximately 125 works capture not only the physical characteristics of animals but also the many ways that animals, from spiders to leopards, act out our human shortcomings and successes. Themes include notions of nurturing, power, wisdom, transformation, beauty and aggression.

The National Museum of African Art is collaborating with Smithsonian education units at the National Zoological Park, National Postal Museum, National Museum of Natural History and Discovery Theater. Each partner site will feature a host of multidisciplinary activities.
The programming project has been supported by the Smithsonian School Programming Fund.

Throughout the centuries, African artists have created artworks in various media that underscore the dynamic quality of Africa's visual traditions. The categories presented here represent the breadth of the collection and are intended as a guide.

The NMAfA collection includes tradition-based and contemporary works of art. Both address important issues of identity, history and aesthetics, demonstrate dynamism and reflect change as African artists respond to new ideas, materials and sources of inspiration.

Tradition-based arts help shape and reflect established formal, functional and aesthetic canons. These artworks, which are used in everyday and ceremonial settings, address individual and community needs and serve social, religious and political ends. Humans and animals, the primary subjects in African art, depict desirable and undesirable aspects of human behavior. Deities, ancestors and other spiritual beings that are portrayed embody the breadth of African religious beliefs and practices.

The creators of tradition-based African art are known and respected members of their communities. Unfortunately, those who created many of the exquisite works now found in museum collections remain unknown because their names were not recorded when the objects were collected many decades ago. In seeking to identify the makers of unsigned works of art, art historians have turned to historical records, oral histories and stylistic analysis to attribute works to a particular artist or workshop. Such research helps us better understand the relationships between artists and patrons and the circulation of objects in both the local and the global marketplace.

Works of contemporary African art stress individual vision and innovation and often address local (usually urban) and global audiences. They find their place within both African and global networks of interpretation and exchange. Their subject matter is broad yet frequently focuses upon visions of personal, national or pan-Africanist post-colonial identity and addresses struggles seen and heard within the larger contemporary art arena. Africa's contemporary artists work in a wide range of media, selectively filtering the global exchange through local channels and bringing local aesthetics to bear upon broader artistic debates and practices.


The viewing of masks is often restricted to certain peoples or places, even when used in performance, or masquerade. African masks manifest spirits of ancestors or nature as well as characters that are spiritual and social forces. During a masquerade, which is performed during ceremonial occasions such as agricultural, initiation, leadership and funerary rites, the mask becomes the otherworld being. When collected by Western cultures, masks are often displayed without their costume ensemble and lack the words, music and movement, or dance, that are integral to the context of African masquerades. Visually, masks are often a combination of human and animal traits. They can be made of wood, natural or man-made fibers, cloth and animal skin. Masks are usually worn with costumes and can, to some extent, be categorized by form, which includes face masks, crest masks, cap masks, helmet masks, shoulder masks, and fiber and body masks. Maskettes, which are shaped like masks, are smaller and are not worn on or over the face. They may be worn on an individual’s arm or hip or hung on a fence or other structure near the performance area.


The cultures of Africa have created a world-renowned tradition of three-dimensional and relief sculpture. Everyday and ceremonial works of great delicacy and surface detail are fashioned by artists using carving, modeling, smithing and casting techniques. Masks, figures, musical instruments, containers, furniture, tools and equipment are all part of the sculptor’s repertoire. The human figure is perhaps the most prominent sculptural form in Africa, as it has been for millennia. Male and female images in wood, ivory, bone, stone, earth, fired clay, iron and copper alloy embody cultural values, depict the ideal and represent spirits, ancestors and deities. Used in a broad range of contexts--initiation, healing, divination, leadership, prestige and religious worship, to name but a few--African sculptures clearly demonstrate the central role of the arts in the African experience.

Furniture and furnishing

Furniture in Africa ranges from everyday household objects, such as headrests and stools, to objects of high social status, such as the elaborately carved chair of an important village elder or the ornamental throne of a king. In many cases, artists from particular areas produce furnishings that have a uniformity of design suited to their function. While adhering to formal and stylistic conventions, artistic creativity and personal expression are highly prized. With a unique and inventive organic style, African furniture demonstrates individual artistry and the inventiveness of African cultures.

Tools and equipment

African tools are often more than hand-held implements for toiling. Created with an obvious attention to detail, their elaborate forms and decorations add beauty and pleasure to daily tasks. Often fashioned in part as figurative sculpture, the spoons, axes, adzes, pipes, combs and heddle pulleys used in daily life are examples of the skill and creativity of African artists. Lavishly decorated tools usually serve a ceremonial, rather than functional, role.


Two-dimensional painting in traditional African art includes images of animals and human figures found on the rock art of the Sahara and in southern Africa. Geometric paintings on house exteriors can be found from west to southern Africa. However, in a museum context, traditional paintings tend to be limited to works on panels or other portable surfaces from only a few places in of Africa. Ethiopian Orthodox style icons are found in this category. These distemper on wood panels are the work of artist priests and date from the 15th century to the present day. Devotional gifts to a church, they often show images of “Mary and her Beloved Son” flanked by saints. They are remarkable emblems of faith that also document Ethiopia’s interaction with Christian art in Europe and the Near East.

Toys and entertainment

Toys and games teach valuable lessons and help serve the social functions inherent in play. Gameboards hone manual dexterity and the skills of quick perception and strategy. Puppets reinforce community values while entertaining. Dolls, many made of ephemeral materials, let girls act out the role and skills of motherhood.

Weapons and armament

African weaponry, which comprises diverse materials, techniques and forms, may be used for hunting, defense or as ceremonial objects that denote high social status. Basketry and hide shields, metal-tipped spears, decorative swords with leather sheaths and distinctively shaped throwing knives attest to the artistry of the African basket makers and metalsmiths who make weapons as well as other utilitarian objects to serve community needs. Often, the hilt or handle of the weapon is particularly well decorated and may be fashioned of carved wood, bone or ivory, covered in gold leaf or wrapped in brass or copper sheeting to further enhance its visual appeal and the status of the owner.

Musical instruments

Music is an important part of African culture. Instruments accompany the events of daily life and are prominent in public ceremonies and royal courts. The museum's collection focuses on those special musical instruments that, in attention to form and detail, are also works of art. The silent visual appeal of a massive slit gong, a delicately carved bell or whistle, or a beautifully crafted drum or harp augments the sound it creates when it is played.

Exchange media

Throughout Africa's past, a wide variety of objects--salt, shells, beads, metal ingots, local and European coins, jewelry, woven cloth, weapons and tools--have served as money and measured wealth. Utilitarian objects made of iron, copper and brass alloys, gold and silver had intrinsic worth based on the durability and value of the metals, but such objects could also be melted down and refashioned to serve other purposes. Although some types of woven cloth, glass beads, cowrie shells and jewelry were used as money, it was usually as a secondary function. A necklace, for example, used for personal adornment may have been considered a form of stored wealth, available for exchange if needed. In many parts of Africa, even with the imposition of national coins and paper money, traditional currencies continue to have a ceremonial role.

Costumes and textiles

Textiles are among Africa's most vibrant arts. Whether made locally or imported, Africans use textiles of various colors, shapes and designs for daily or ceremonial clothing, as shrouds for the dead or as furnishing fabrics for the interior of their residences. Such garments indicate a person's status and fashion flair, but may also be worn as protection from negative forces.

Both men and women weave in Africa. Though there are exceptions to the rule, narrow-strip textiles are traditionally woven by men. Broadloom textiles, by contrast, are usually woven by women. Materials include natural fibers such as raffia and bark, locally grown and spun cotton thread, locally produced and imported silk or cotton thread and a range of synthetic fibers. Dyes include natural vegetal pigments and aniline or chemical dyes.

The appeal of African textiles has spread worldwide. Ghana's strip-woven kente and stamped adinkra cloth, Mali's mud-dyed bogolanfini, factory-printed textiles from West and East Africa and other African fabrics are now popular fashion accessories both within and outside Africa.

Costume accessories

In Africa, as throughout the world, what individuals wear may communicate their age, the identities of the groups to which they belong and their status within their communities. Costume accessories include jewelry, hats, shoes, amulets and fans. The artistry of these objects is manifest in the embellishments and materials used, such as raffia, cotton, silk, glass beads, copper alloy, gold, silver and ivory.


Both men and women create beautiful containers, such as gourds, baskets, pots, wooden cups and bowls, to store and transport food and water and to hold their most valuable and useful items. Crafted in a variety of materials, many of these objects display decorative flourishes and attention to detail that mark them as prized personal possessions. Containers, such as ceramic pots or gourd bowls, may also be used in special ceremonies or become part of an assemblage of objects used in a shrine.

Books and manuscripts

Africa's long history of written languages and literacy dates to medieval times when great centers of learning were established. Beautifully illustrated, hand-written books and manuscripts demonstrate the interplay between the visual arts and language. Ethiopian Orthodox and Islamic religious texts and Ethiopian healing scrolls attest to the power of the written word to act as both narrative and design. The beauty and power of these scripts are often augmented by decorative patterns or symbolic designs created by talented illustrators and artists.

Architectural elements

Architectural elements are removable components of buildings-i.e., doors, door locks, windows and support posts--that are decorated. While serving obvious practical and aesthetic functions, most of these objects also offer spiritual protection to those who use the structure or testify to the wealth and social status of the owner. The majority of the museum's architectural objects are from West Africa. Woven elements of portable architecture, such as tent walls and blankets, are under Costumes and Textiles.


Collection Armand Auxietre
Art primitif, Art premier, Art africain, African Art Gallery, Tribal Art Gallery
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