Classification is the most basic category that defines an object within the Collection:
Architectural elements are removable components of buildings-i.e., doors, door locks, windows and support posts--that are decorated. While serving obvious practical and aesthetic functions, most of these objects also offer spiritual protection to those who use the structure or testify to the wealth and social status of the owner.
Books & Manuscripts Africa's long history of written languages and literacy dates to medieval times when great centers of learning were established. Beautifully illustrated, hand-written books and manuscripts demonstrate the interplay between the visual arts and language. Ethiopian Orthodox and Islamic religious texts to contemporary Artist books attest to the power of the written word to act as both narrative and design.
Containers Both men and women create beautiful containers, such as gourds, baskets, pots, wooden cups and bowls, to store and transport food and water and to hold their most valuable and useful items. Containers, such as ceramic pots or gourd bowls, may also be used in special ceremonies or become part of an assemblage of objects used in a shrine.
Costume Accessories In Africa, as throughout the world, what individuals wear may communicate their age, the identities of the groups to which they belong and their status within their communities. Costume accessories include jewelry, hats, shoes, amulets and fans. The artistry of these objects is manifest in the embellishments and materials used, such as raffia, cotton, silk, glass beads, copper alloy, gold, silver and ivory.
Costumes and Textiles The appeal of African textiles has spread worldwide. Ghana's strip-woven kente and stamped adinkra cloth, Kuba raffia dance skirts, Zulu beadwork, factory-printed textiles from West and East Africa and other African fabrics are now popular fashion accessories both within and outside Africa. Whether made locally or imported, Africans use textiles of various colors, shapes and designs for daily or ceremonial clothing, as shrouds for the dead or as furnishing fabrics for the interior of their residences. Such garments indicate a person's status and fashion flair, but may also be worn as protection from negative forces.
Exchange Media Throughout Africa's past, a wide variety of objects--salt, shells, beads, metal ingots, local and European coins, jewelry, woven cloth, weapons and tools--have served as money and measured wealth. Utilitarian objects made of iron, copper and brass alloys, gold and silver had intrinsic worth based on the durability and value of the metals, but such objects could also be melted down and refashioned to serve other purposes. Although some types of woven cloth, glass beads, cowrie shells and jewelry were used as money, it was usually as a secondary function.
Furniture and Furnishings Furniture in Africa ranges from everyday household objects, such as headrests and stools, to objects of high social status, such as the elaborately carved chair of an important village elder or the ornamental throne of a king. In many cases, artists from particular areas produce furnishings that have a uniformity of design suited to their function. While adhering to formal and stylistic conventions, artistic creativity and personal expression are highly prized. With a unique and inventive organic style, African furniture demonstrates individual artistry and the inventiveness of African cultures.
Mask The viewing of masks is often restricted to certain peoples or places, even when used in performance, or masquerade. African masks manifest spirits of ancestors or nature as well as characters that are spiritual and social forces. During a masquerade, which is performed during ceremonial occasions such as agricultural, initiation, leadership and funerary rites, the mask becomes the otherworld being. When collected by Western cultures, masks are often displayed without their costume ensemble and lack the words, music and movement, or dances that are integral to the context of African masquerades.
Musical Instruments Music is an important part of African culture. Instruments accompany the events of daily life and are prominent in public ceremonies and royal courts. The museum's collection focuses on those special musical instruments that, in attention to form and detail, are also works of art. The silent visual appeal of a massive slit gong, a delicately carved bell or whistle, or a beautifully crafted drum or harp augments the sound it creates when it is played.
Painting Two-dimensional painting in traditional African art includes images of animals and human figures found on the rock art of the Sahara and in southern Africa. Works of contemporary African art stress individual vision and innovation and often address local (usually urban) and global audiences. They find their place within both African and global networks of interpretation and exchange. Their subject matter is broad yet frequently focuses upon visions of personal, national or pan-Africanist post-colonial identity and addresses struggles seen and heard within the larger contemporary art arena.
Sculpture The cultures of Africa have created a world-renowned tradition of three-dimensional and relief sculpture. Every day and ceremonial works of great delicacy and surface detail are fashioned by artists using carving, modeling, smithing and casting techniques. Masks, figures, musical instruments, containers, furniture, tools and equipment are all part of the sculptor's repertoire. The human figure is perhaps the most prominent sculptural form in Africa, as it has been for millennia. Male and female images in wood, ivory, bone, stone, earth, fired clay, iron and copper alloy embody cultural values, depict the ideal and represent spirits, ancestors and deities. Used in a broad range of contexts--initiation, healing, divination, leadership, prestige and religious worship, to name but a few--African sculptures clearly demonstrate the central role of the arts in the African experience.
Tools and equipment African tools are often more than hand-held implements for toiling. Created with an obvious attention to detail, their elaborate forms and decorations add beauty and pleasure to daily tasks. Often fashioned in part as figurative sculpture, the spoons, axes, adzes, pipes, combs and heddle pulleys used in daily life are examples of the skill and creativity of African artists. Lavishly decorated tools usually serve a ceremonial, rather than functional, role.
Toys and entertainment Toys and games teach valuable lessons and help serve the social functions inherent in play. Gameboards hone manual dexterity and the skills of quick perception and strategy. Puppets reinforce community values while entertaining. Dolls, many made of ephemeral materials, let girls act out the role and skills of motherhood.
Weapons and Armament African weaponry, which comprises diverse materials, techniques and forms, may be used for hunting, defense or as ceremonial objects that denote high social status. Basketry and hide shields, metal-tipped spears, decorative swords with leather sheaths and distinctively shaped throwing knives attest to the artistry of the African basket makers and metal smiths who make weapons as well as other utilitarian objects to serve community needs.