The National Museum of African Art

The NMAA connects to the Freer and Sackler galleries under ground. Let’s also say that they are linked together by their subject matter (art from non-white continents) and by the collection histories (art from people who “collected” in colonized contexts). It is a difficult collection history to face. On one hand, the works of art are very beautiful, and history has brought them to the museum, even if much of it has been rather unsavory. On the other hand, neither the curators nor the public should forget those unsavory parts of museum history. Because of it, much of the information about the art works has been lost. Information is now lost that wasn’t considered important during the collection process, like the name of the artist, or the culture and time period in which it originated, or what the intent behind its creation was. These works of art were considered proof of Africa’s primitiveness and savagery, and the museum set them up as ethnographic objects in contrast to the art of “civilized Europeans”. How does one set up a museum that faces this history, and then moves in a new direction?

In the case of this mask, they address that history in the text. It’s nothing particularly strong, it doesn’t say that taking masks out of context is wrong, or that it was a common problem based on the way that collectors viewed African art, but you can read the acknowledgement yourself:

The striking disconnect between the divisions of the painted surface and the underlying carved form is an aspect of African art that first entranced Western audiences. The Western lack of awareness of context was such that when this mask was exhibited in the 1950’s in France, it was identified as coming from a different part of Africa. Later research attributed this mask to the Tongo peoples as part of a wider tradition of divided color faces.

Or it can be even less direct, like with this carved ivory piece:

The text accompanying this piece identifies it as a commissioned piece, a royal gift from Prince Manuel of Portugal to King Ferdinand V of Castile and Aragon. Displayed in the center of the room, it places African art directly into the tradition of Europe, showing European interaction and even motifs.

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