An African art museum less traveled

Washington Post

The papier-mache sculpture, all 10 feet tall, has curves that speak of movement, full hips and embracing arms. It also has several sets of eyes and faces that signal fun and seem to be showing new directions. The figure in black, red, gold and blue is probably male but maybe not.

This whimsical and evocative work by Mickael Bethe-Selassie has a permanent home in Washington at the National Museum of African Art, right under the traffic of the busiest museum row in the world. But few people discover it.

Finding the finest art from Africa and introducing the work to new audiences has been a mission of the African Art Museum since its founding in 1964. Attention to artists from the post-World War II generation, such as the Ethiopian-born Selassie, has been a focus at the 40-year-old museum since it became part of the Smithsonian Institution 25 years ago.


Yet few know that the treasures of the past have been joined by this significant collection of modern work.

The museum has evolved into a strong blend. The traditional, of course, is expected: the late-15th century to early-16th century male head carved by the Edo people of the Benin Kingdom in Nigeria, or the mask of a woman with braids by her forehead carved by the Chokwe people of the Congo in the early 20th century. But it is also the unexpected: a smooth vase without any adornments or carvings done in 1994 by Magdalene Anyango N. Odundo of Kenya, the environmental canvas of South Africa’s Georgia Papageorge, who draws natural rifts in the style of topography maps to symbolize political upheaval, and an animated film by William Kentridge of South Africa illustrating the exploitation of the African worker today. This inclusion shows a new phase of the museum’s interest.

“The museum has spoken volumes about the formal recognition of Africans to the United States and the recognition of the contributions of African art to world art,” says Sharon F. Patton, an art historian and scholar of West African and African American art who 17 months ago became the museum director.

But some, especially Patton, are asking whether that is enough.

Born amid the controversy and politics of the civil rights and Black Power movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the museum is one of only two in the United States devoted solely to the collection of both traditional and contemporary African art. Its permanent holdings include 8,000 objects and 300,000 photographs, from Life photographer Eliot Elisofon, a globe-trotting photojournalist who covered the major events and people of the mid-20th century, and Constance Stuart Larrabee, who covered World War II and South African life. The Museum for African Art in New York is much smaller.

The number of museums, serious collectors and published scholars concentrating on African art is relatively small. Warren M. Robbins, the founding director of the Washington museum, and Nancy Nooter, a donor and longtime board member, examined the field for their “African Art in American Collections Survey 1989,” and found about 1,000 significant private collections and 250 museum collections.

The museum retains its importance as a catalyst for debates within the art world. Lowery Stokes Sims, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, says the museum is “a laboratory for discussion” of how individuality flourishes in the African art context and the origins of modern art. “There is still a need to resurrect African art from being mere signals to Picasso,” Sims says.


Public’s changing tastes

Still, the African Art Museum is dwarfed by its sister Smithsonian museums in the size of its collections, in attendance and in visibility. First of all, it is in an underground building between Independence Avenue SW and the Smithsonian Castle that goes down three stories, connected to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a museum of Asian art.

In 2003, African Art drew 170,235 visitors, out of 24 million for the total Smithsonian. Of the art museums, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden had 660,000 visitors; the Freer Gallery of Art 315,000; the Renwick Gallery 168,000 and the Sackler 161,500.

Ned Rifkin, undersecretary of art at the Smithsonian who oversees the African Art museum, says the institution is on a firm footing but needs to plan its future in a world of fast-changing public tastes. “It is well positioned to do that. I’m pleased with the foundation,” he says. But it is time to stretch, even if the economy is putting the brakes on large expansions. “I have nothing but praise for what has happened up to now. Now it is time for a quantum leap.”

Looking back, the museum has approached its role as a collector and exhibitor in three distinct ways.

The first phase was the 15 years under Warren Robbins that preceded the museum’s joining the Smithsonian’s stable. In that period, when the museum was founded in a historic row of houses on Capitol Hill, its main focus was traditional African art, as well as developing a strong following as an education facility and meeting place for those who were interested in racial politics in America. Its existence was a validation of some of the tenets of the Black Power and black arts movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, one of which demanded acknowledgment that Africa had a highly developed culture that enriched those movements in America.

The cultural heritage of black people remained a strong theme throughout the years. But over time the context changed from simply looking at African art as ethnographic material to seeing traditional objects as exquisite craftsmanship that stood up and survived the centuries as the best art.

In 1983, Sylvia H. Williams became the second director and shifted the emphasis to a more scholarly approach. She “took the art historian perspective,” says Patton. The collecting expanded to regions beyond the areas south of the Sahara, including Arab North Africa and Egypt, and added contemporary art. “She bought work at high costs. And it turns out that (the artworks) are very rare. She took that risk.”

Roslyn A. Walker, the director from 1997 to 2002, formalized that somewhat controversial approach by paying respect to the past but dedicating a gallery to contemporary art and hiring a contemporary art curator.

“Anytime you want something new you are going to have static,” says Walker, now the senior curator at the Dallas Museum of Art. And competition. Walker recalls going to an auction in Paris and having to spend more than her budgeted $25,000 for an ancient Yoruba mask.

All three phases, including 130 special exhibitions in 25 years, have made the museum a solid force in the international art world. Today the museum has 400 contemporary objects in the permanent collection, with 40 of them on display in a show called “Insights.” The contemporary art is drawn from family, political and spiritual themes and topics include love, poverty, disenfranchisement and politics.