The Museum’s African collection originated with gifts from the Hanes family beginning in the 1970s, primarily historical material from the 19th and 20th centuries, including important items from the Benin Kingdom such as the Altar to the Hand. Later acquisitions expanded regional coverage to include other parts of sub-Saharan Africa with an eye toward assembling works that demonstrated a particular ethnic style, such as those of the Chokwe and Luba peoples of central Africa.
Though much of the collection is rooted in traditional media such as wood, metal, and textiles and derives from established creative traditions, many works date from the mid-20thcentury and give insight into global exchanges that have taken place on the continent for centuries. For example, the spectacular Yoruba egungun masquerade costumes (See here and here) are made from an array of fabrics, including many imported from Europe and dating to the 1930s. The Asafo Society flag from Ghana, with its prominent Union Jack, marks a history of the British presence, while other works feature mirrors, buttons, or beads obtained through global trade. A defining acquisition of the collection is Skunder Boghossian’s Night Flight of Dread and Delight (1964), the first piece of modern/contemporary art by an African artist collected by the Museum.
In the new gallery building, the African collection is unbound, whereas works had previously been grouped according to geographic region and ethnic group. In practice these boundaries are quite fluid. Throughout history political borders have shifted—in Africa and elsewhere—and people of different ethnicities are frequently on the move rather than tied to a particular region. Long-standing collection favorites are reassembled based on meaning, significance, and use, allowing visitors to appreciate universal elements such as power, spirituality, and celebration on their own terms.