Rethinking African Art

Reinstalled galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art add light, color, motion–and context.

Countering the media’s focus on negative news, from AIDS and Ebola to migrant shipwrecks and the atrocities of Boko Haram, the African art galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art provide a place to get a fuller, more accurate picture of African life and peoples.

Stellar objects give a vivid account of the African values, beliefs, rituals and daily activities that rarely attract the media spotlight.

The African art galleries were a highlight when the Nelson’s Bloch Building opened in 2007.  Since then, the museum has received substantial gifts of African works and brought on Nii Quarcoopome as curator of African art.

Following his arrival in 2012, Quarcoopome combed through the collection and re-evaluated the opening display.  In recent months, he’s made substantial changes in a bid to make the galleries more inviting and interactive and to restore a sense of context to the works of art.

Until fairly recently, progressive thinking held that the best way to honor the artistic achievements of non-Western cultures was to display them like Western artworks in pristine white-walled galleries.

The goal of this type of presentation was to change long-held perceptions of non-Western objects as ethnographic specimens—the products of “other,” less sophisticated cultures—rather than significant works of art.

But the aesthetic respect gained by the shift to white walls and pedestals came at the expense of context.  As Quarcoopome, who was born in Ghana and holds a doctorate in art history from the University of California, Los Angeles, explained, “These objects were not intended for cases. They played a specific function in the culture.”

One of the goals of Quarcoopome’s reinstallation was to restore a sense of African context to the objects on view, “to help visitors to enjoy the objects as works of art and also understand the culture.”

Early on in the process, he ordered two contemporary Asante stools—they’re not valuable and can be easily replaced—from a dealer in New York. Children can now sit on them and experience the way 19th- century African kings would have felt, seated on the Tabwa Throne and the Asante Royal Stool displayed nearby. And the practice continues:  “Thrones (of this type) are still being used today,” Quarcoopome said.

In the rethought galleries, the collection’s masks come alive, viewed in relation to a dramatic video clip capturing a costumed dancer in a ritual performance, his tall mask bobbing up and down in time to beating drums.

The case directly beneath the video displays a Mende mask that Quarcoopome calls “one of the most important objects in African art.”

“It’s the only mask commissioned by women and danced by women,” he said, “and is used in girls’ initiation rites.”

A 17th-century head of a ruler from Nigeria’s Benin kingdom, part of the museum’s collection since 1987, takes on new dimensions with the addition of a photograph showing the way it originally was displayed on an altar, with an ivory tusk inserted in the large hole on top of the head.

More touches like these, including colorful graphics, a projected map showing the continent’s countries and regions, and a computer station where visitors can digitally design their own Adinkra stamped-cloth textile and email it to themselves, make for a display that is more inviting and interactive.

While Quarcoopome has perked up the entire African presentation with his additions of color, light and motion, he has also reorganized the displays.  After examining the museum’s collection of more than 350 African objects, he decided to focus on the two main themes reflecting their strengths. On the south side of the galleries he has assembled objects relating to leadership; on the north side, spirituality.

The leadership section, which includes that Benin head and a colorful Beaded Throne from the Bamileke chiefdom, considers the topic from various angles. One is the way leaders demonstrated their economic power and wealth through the use of gold, brass, and prestigious materials such as beads, brought to Benin by Portuguese traders in the 15th century.

Masks and power figures dominate the spirituality section, including an arugba (bowl carrier), which would have been placed at the center of a shrine dedicated to Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder. It had been packed away since 1984, when it was given to the museum by Donald and Sally Tranin.

In addition to pulling objects from storage, Quarcoopome had many new acquisitions to work with, thanks to large donations of African objects from the Helzberg Family and the Tranin Family. “Both have enhanced our ability to tell more stories of African art and history,” he said.

His reinstallation features 21 objects from their gifts. A Kran mask given by the Tranins displays the angular, abstracted features that inspired the Cubists; a Songye Power Figure appended with long wood handles came from the Helzbergs.

It “was not to be touched by human hands,” Quarcoopome said.

Several loan objects, including a dramatic Guéré mask from Liberia, from Donald and Adele Hall, add further scope to the galleries’ presentation.

In all, there are 75 works on display, representing the apex of African artistic achievement over the course of some 2,500 


Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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