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Out of Africa Treasures at the Smithsonian in Washington

The National Museum of African Art

950 Independence Ave. 
SW Washington 

Phone: 202-357-4600
Hours: Daily: 10am-5:30pm


(Original publication: August 22, 2004) found at: 

WASHINGTON — The papier-mache sculpture, all 10 feet tall, has curves that speak of movement, full hips and embracing arms. It also has eyes, 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. 


Read also:

La Smithsonian a 25 ans ( in French) 

National Museum of African Art Celebrates Silver Anniversary


The traditional, of course, is expected: the late-15th 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 18 months ago became the museum director.

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

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," says Sims.

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 that goes down three stories. In 2003 African Art drew 170,235 visitors, out of 24 million for the total Smithsonian.

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."

The museum has mounted 130 special exhibitions in 25 years, making it 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. The topics can be love, poverty, disenfranchisement, politics and exile.

The museum is the go-to place for contemporary African art in America, both in its galleries and in its research facilities. With the infusion of the Smithsonian money, the library grew from about 3,000 volumes to 30,000. The book collection covers visual arts, history, anthropology, religion, travel and even cookbooks.

Although there are few quarrels with the quality of the displays, some veterans, such as Robbins, want the museum to have more of a social-hall feeling — a destination for groups and fraternal organizations, such as the National Urban League. Robbins says missing those opportunities makes it isolated and elitist. "I am happy to know that something I started grew, and is guaranteed through perpetuity. But I first wanted it to be a public museum and it got to be elitist. And the only way to increase attendance is through activities," says Robbins.

Today, its supporters believe, there is still a need to be instructional, to go behind the art and give some understanding of today's Africa, and what current events mean to African-Americans and all black people in the diaspora.

Patton wants the museum to balance all those roles, and doesn't think the time has passed for promoting Africa or using the prestige of a museum to counter and explain the often horrible news from Africa, from wars to genocide to regime-induced mass starvations. "We still have an education role: to be an antidote to news from Africa. Almost every time Africa is mentioned it is about HIV and AIDS. We have to think about Africa differently," she says. Art is one conduit, she argues. "It is a retrievable and redeemable culture. Art has a way of providing a narrative for issues and provides a place of solace."

As the anniversary events start, Patton is doing physically what her three predecessors did culturally with their art mix — tear down the walls. When it opens in November, the anniversary show "Treasures" — a collection of masterpieces of ancient and modern times — will replace three separate galleries and total 7,000 square feet.

Patton's task is to make sure people see more. More and more pieces are being moved to the center of the floor. "When you see them from all sides," says Patton, "that is discovery." And hopefully a rediscovery of the treasures below the ground.

Read also:

La Smithsonian a 25 ans ( in French) 

National Museum of African Art Celebrates Silver Anniversary

Native American museum to seek balance of old, new

By Frederic J. Frommer, Associated Press | August 21, 2004

found at

WASHINGTON -- The newest Smithsonian museum is gathering ancient ceramics, intricate beadwork, and modern art to illustrate the past and present of native peoples spread across the Western Hemisphere for some 20,000 years.

''It's a set of cultures with a deep past, but at the same time communities that are thoroughly contemporary -- they're here right now too," said museum director W. Richard West Jr. ''There are 30 to 40 million native people living in the Western Hemisphere."

When the National Museum of the American Indian opens Sept. 21, it will seek to give the appropriate weight to injustices suffered at the hands of white settlers, but will not make that the focus of a history that sweeps over millenniums.

''The truth is what it is," said West, who is of Southern Cheyenne extraction. ''The history between Native Americans and Euro-Americans has been quite tragic. We do not propose to skirt that tragedy."

But, he said, the museum will show ''so much good and so much positive along with the tragedy."

The five-story museum took the last remaining spot on the grassy National Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument -- a four-acre site at the foot of Capitol Hill.

It is the first new museum on the Mall since the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, for Asian art, opened together in 1987.

Indian museum curator Gerald McMaster expects 5 million visitors a year.

Exhibits will include ancient artifacts, such as a 2,000-year-old ceramic jaguar clutching a man between its paws, as well as works from modern Indian artists George Morrison and Allan Houser.

Other exhibits will focus on the lives of Indians today, touching on the highs and lows. For many Indians, wealth generated by casinos has increased living standards. But Indians still have higher poverty rates than the national average, and higher rates of diseases such as diabetes, respiratory infections, and alcoholism.

The Indian museum will be surrounded by 700 trees and a wetlands area with plants such as yellow pond-lily and wild rice. The ''three sisters" of American Indian agriculture -- corn, beans, and squash -- will also be planted.

The exterior, made from Kasota limestone quarried from Minnesota, is rounded to reflect the curves of the earth, sun, and moon.

The inside of the museum also emphasizes curved features, with a skylight topping off a series of narrowing concentric circles that make up the building's ceiling. Crystal prisms facing south will reflect sunlight through the museum, and a ''Welcome Wall" will greet visitors with 200 native words, all meaning welcome.

This is not the first national Indian museum, but it will be the biggest and most prominent. The late New York banker George Gustav Heye collected much of what now makes up the Smithsonian collection in the first half of the 20th century, and used that to launch the original Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

After the collection fell into disrepair, the Smithsonian reached an agreement with the museum to take it over in 1989. Later that year, President George H.W. Bush signed legislation establishing a new Indian museum on the Mall.

The George Gustav Heye Center remains in New York City as part of the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian, but it will serve a much smaller audience.

The museum in Washington will open its doors with 8,000 objects filling five major exhibitions.

That represents only 1 percent of the Smithsonian's 800,000 objects, which are in storage at the museum's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md. Those items range from a 45-foot, 19th century totem pole from an island off the coast of Alaska, to 11,000-year-old Clovis spear points from what is now New Mexico. The collection includes items from every country in the Western Hemisphere.

The museum staff consulted with 24 tribal communities -- half from the United States, and the other half from Canada and Latin America -- in selecting items.

Objects will include baskets, pottery, beadwork, stone carvings, photographs, textiles, and mosaics.

The museum has invited native communities from across the Western Hemisphere to participate in a ''Native Nations" procession to mark the museum's opening. More than 250,000 people are expected to attend, many in traditional Indian dress. 

© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company   


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