Global African Arts

The Museum’s collection of African arts originated with gifts that began in the late 1960s and a core set of objects donated between the mid-1970s and 1980s, primarily of sub-Saharan art from the 19th and 20th centuries. Subsequent acquisitions have either built on existing strengths or have addressed important historical or regional gaps.
Edo peoples, Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, Altar to the Hand (Ikegobo), 19th century, wood, H. 17 1/2 × W. 20 3/4 × D. 14 in., Gift of the James G. Hanes Memorial Fund


The addition of a sculpture by a “Nok” artist (Nigeria) adds important historical depth. The painting Caribbean Days (2005) by Wosene Kosrof emphasizes African modernism and links Africa with its many diasporas. Recent acquisitions of works by Viyé Diba, Elias Sime, Omar Victor Diop, William Kentridge, and Graeme Williams lend a more current edge to the collection.

Donations in 2017 and 2018 of late 19th-century southern African works and ceramic Zulu and Ugandan beer vessels—both contemporary and tradition-based—complement the Xhosa and Shona holdings. Southern and eastern African objects have also been added, including a Tsonga status axe, remarkable South African and Somalian headrests, and a beaded Ha mask.

Growth in Islamic and Christian arts has begun to be addressed with the addition of an Islamic prayer board, an Ethiopian healing scroll, and a Coptic Egyptian triptych. The NCMA’s admirable Yorùbá holdings include a group of monumental veranda posts by well-known present-day Yorùbá carver Lamidi Fakẹyẹ (1928–2009) as well as three complete Yorùbá egúngún masquerade ensembles from the early to mid-20th century, all of which remain keystones of the collection. A recently acquired (2019) full Omabe masquerade ensemble by an Igbo artist complements this core set.


In keeping with the history of African art collecting practices, this collection is rooted in tradition-based media such as wood, metal, and textiles and derives from established creative traditions. However, many works from the NCMA African arts collection date from the mid-20th century to the present and give insights into global exchanges that have taken place on the continent for centuries. For example, the spectacular Yorùbá egúngún masquerade ensembles 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 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.

The African collection is unbound, inviting conversations across cultural zones. Stylistic boundaries can be quite fluid within African regions, and throughout history political borders have shifted—in Africa and elsewhere. As a result, people of different ethnicities are frequently on the move rather than tied to a particular region. Visitors are encouraged to consider the meaning, significance, use, and stylistic trends seen among works both within this gallery and across NCMA collections.

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