New discoveries about African art
unveils intriguing finds in legendary private collection
National Museum of African Art curator Bryna Freyer, designer Alan Knezevich (center) and conservator Stephen Mellor: "African
The Washington Post/ANDREA BRUCE
By JACQUELINE TRESCOTT, The Washington Post found at delawareonline.com
WASHINGTON -- For many years Bryna Freyer, a curator at the Smithsonian's
National Museum of African Art, treasured her worn catalog of New York real
estate developer Paul Tishman's collection. Though almost 40 years old, the
book was an unmatched window into the world of African art.
But the collection itself was out of sight. After it was sold to the Walt
Disney Co. in 1984, it mostly stayed locked up in climate-controlled warehouse
space in California. It was considered perhaps the finest hoard of its kind in
private hands, but it was rarely seen.
Then, 16 months ago, the collection was given to the museum.
Freyer, a short woman with a bulldozer's determination and 30 years'
experience, found it a staggering prospect. The gift opened a whole new world
for her and all of the museum's curators, and the museum recently unveiled 88
of the most fascinating treasures from that legendary collection of 525
There were items from 75 different cultures and 20 countries: sculptural
pieces such as a rare mounted Yoruba warrior, with spear and mask, from
Nigeria; a carved female shown wearing beads while pounding cassava, from
Angola; a wooden door from Gabon carved with the silhouette of a guardian
There were five masks from southeastern Nigeria and western Cameroon made
of antelope skin, vividly shaped with an open mouth, flared nostrils and
A hunting horn, carved from a single ivory tusk by the Bullom or Temne
peoples of Sierra Leone, is perhaps the collection's oldest piece. It is
believed to date from around 1500. Carefully tucked into the intricate carved
ornamentation are the coats of arms of Portugal and Spain, evidence of early
"In the field of African art history, we cut our teeth on the
collection. The book was used as a text for 10 years," says curator
Christine Mullen Kreamer, who supervised the unwrapping of the collection.
Freyer, Kreamer and their colleagues found themselves holding precious
objects they had known only from black-and-white photos. It was a bit like
being reunited with long-lost relatives.
Freyer and the others made amazing discoveries about the art. A
guardian-figure reliquary made of wood and brass by the Kota people of Gabon,
which they knew from photographs, turned out to have another face on its back.
And more surprises: "A Yoruba figure had been described with a fish
design," says Freyer. "Upon examination it turns out to be a
One mystery was solved with the help of scientists at the National Museum
of Natural History. A mask from Cameroon had a mass of hair that looked like a
full beard on a male face. It was doubtless made using a natural material, but
The Natural History experts finally identified it: spider web silk. In that
part of Cameroon, the Bamum people associate the spider with wisdom, so the
scientific discovery gave the curators more to think about as they interpreted
the artist's purpose and the piece's function.
The mask had other surprises. In some photographs it was shown with the
horns pointing down. But curators found photographs, from a French expedition,
of that very mask being worn in Africa. "There was our mask, with the
horns pointing up," says Freyer. The curators changed the position, and
the horns now give the face an interesting frame.
Small staff accepts big undertaking
Yet with all the levels of discovery going on, putting together the show
placed tremendous pressure on an already-strapped staff. Sharon Patton, the
museum director and an expert in the field, was on sick leave most of last
year. The staff numbered only 31, and no additional curators or designers were
hired for the show. Everything else had to be put aside.
Despite those obstacles, the museum decided to do a complete inventory of
the collection and selected 24 objects for a small show called "First
Look." Then the curators went to work on the showcase exhibition,
"African Vision," researching the items' history and comparing the
new treasures with things the museum already owned.
Then they produced a 256-page book, the first to present full-color images
of the complete Disney-Tishman collection. Every piece was carefully
photographed front, back and side by Franko Khoury. Some sculptures' backs
will be seen for the first time in print.
Inside the museum's conservation laboratory, Stephen Mellor and his staff
of three examined cracks, cleaned surfaces and repaired beading. They also had
to remove many of the old shafts the pieces were mounted on so that
museum-quality stands could be affixed.
One mount gave him a fit. It was inside a stone piece of a tall figure with
folded wings, most likely from the Shona peoples, possibly from the site of
Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa. Its origins weren't his primary mission.
Removing its support was. "I X-rayed it and the mount went way up
inside," says Mellor. But he couldn't see the adhesive. He used several
solutions to see if it could be dissolved. Nothing quite worked. Then he
decided to give it a bath. With a few twists, the mounting shaft came off.
That ticklish task took almost a year.
With the backstage preparation still going on, Alan Knezevich, the
associate director for facilities, had to decide about the design of the show;
he tried to light every object as if it were a priceless gem.
He decided to open up 8,000 square feet of space and add a second room of
5,000 square feet. One thing the whole team agreed on was to have enough room
around the pieces so that people could study them. "We want to accentuate
the experience of walking in the room and also give a singular experience with
the object," says Knezevich. "So many are masterpieces.