The NCMA’s Threads of Africa celebration is something I’ve been looking forward to for months. I can't wait to celebrate the reinstallation of the Museum’s African Gallery with visitors and am particularly excited to see some of my favorite objects in the collection coming together in spaces that highlight the immense diversity of Africa's aesthetic history.
Press Play to meet the author and get a glimpse of the new African Gallery at the NCMA.
When I first started as consulting curator for African art at the NCMA back in 2012, I realized that the Museum had a few key objects from the largely underrepresented region of Southern Africa, and knew I had a role to play.
Until the past decade or so, U.S. art museums haven't widely collected art from Southern Africa. The art from this area of the continent produced during the 19th or 20th centuries was often smaller in scale, utilitarian, or part of bodily adornment. The majority of early collectors preferred to purchase wooden sculptures and masks from Western and Central Africa tied to spiritual traditions and leadership arts.
Central or Southern Shona artist, Zimbabwe, Headrest (mutsago), early 20th century, wood, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Cedric Marks
The NCMA was fortunate that one of the first African art objects ever donated to the collection came from Mr. and Mrs. Cedric Marks, a New York couple famous for their African Art collection. This mutsago, or headrest, is truly canonical. This carving would have protected a high-status Shona person’s coiffure and would also have been an object admired for its beauty.
In the new reinstallation of the permanent African art gallery, the mutsago is back on view after being in storage for over a decade. After that initial 1968 donation, the collection’s focus was largely on works from Western and Central Africa. The Hanes Family and Foundation donated a core set of objects, and from 1985 to 2002, Education Director and Curator Rebecca Nagy built upon these Western and Central holdings.
Detail of Xhosa beaded ensemble in the NCMA's new African Gallery
Thankfully Nagy also had the foresight to realize that personal adornment traditions of Southern Africa were critical acquisitions if visitors were to understand the breadth of African creative output. She advised that the Museum purchase a diviner’s and an acolyte’s beadwork ensembles made by Xhosa artists. This acquisition is a lynchpin in the new gallery.
The Shona headrest and the beadwork Xhosa ensembles demonstrate the sophisticated abstraction and geometry of both personal adornment and utilitarian arts in Southern Africa. What the NCMA needed was a piece that spoke to the importance of leaders and the symbols of social structure in Southern Africa, something that would bridge the gap between the leadership arts of West and Central Africa and the traditions of Southern Africa.
Tsonga ceremonial axe and Xhosa ensemble in the NCMA's new African Gallery
In 2014 I saw that a prominent collector in South Africa was auctioning off some of his collection and knew that the Status Axe by a Tsonga carver would convey the symbolic power the collection needed. We were fortunate to acquire this piece at auction, and my research began. The challenge was that no local name for this beautiful carving was retained. It was labeled as a status axe, but I strive to also use local names for all art objects to acknowledge that there are entire systems of aesthetic appreciation and value behind every piece.
I contacted William Dewey, a metalwork expert who is the director of African Studies at Penn State, and Rayda Becker, curator of the Parliament in South Africa, to see if either of these experts could track down a Tsonga word for this status axe. After over a dozen emails and a consultation with a chief and traditional healer, we learned this axe would be called a ndzhanga.
Tsonga artist, South Africa, Status Axe (ndzhanga), late 19th–early 20th century, wood and steel, Purchased with funds from the General Art Fund, 2014
Commissioned by a chief from a carver, the axe would have been held during assemblies of traditional leaders when adjudicating and arbitrating legal proceedings. One can understand that the tension and sense of compression of the double bands are definitely intentional: this axe would not be used during any physical battle but would have been a symbol of power during pivotal events in people’s lives.
To me the refinement and reduced lines in Southern African arts are sublimely beautiful. The carving, beadwork, and ceramics visitors will see in the galleries give a sense of this aesthetic sophistication. Through several new purchases, donations, and loans, I have been able to create a space for visitors to join me in contemplating these art traditions.