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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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african vision


"African Vision" is the new collection at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW, in Washington.

Hours are 10 a.m.-5:30p.m. daily except Dec. 25. Admission is free. For information: (202) 633-4300 or 

New discoveries about African art

National Museum of African Art curator Bryna Freyer, designer Alan Knezevich (center) and conservator Stephen Mellor: "African Vision."The Washington Post/ANDREA BRUCESmithsonian unveils intriguing finds in legendary private collection

National Museum of African Art curator Bryna Freyer, designer Alan Knezevich (center) and conservator Stephen Mellor: "African Vision."
The Washington Post/ANDREA BRUCE

By JACQUELINE TRESCOTT, The Washington Post found at

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 objects.

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 figure.

There were five masks from southeastern Nigeria and western Cameroon made of antelope skin, vividly shaped with an open mouth, flared nostrils and penetrating eyes.

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 European explorers.

"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 ram."

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 what?

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.

Copyright © 2007, The News Journal

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