Artful Animals explores how African artists create striking works of art using images based on an array of domestic and untamed animals. From rock art to contemporary media, animals are used as symbols of leadership, in masquerades and to tell the history and moral values of their makers. Many of the design elements are derived through direct observation of the animals in their natural habitat. Animals may be picked because they are beautiful, strong, fierce, well armored or have special skills. Sometimes the sound the animal makes or the way it moves is important. The animal's distinctive behaviors lend themselves to carrying messages in the visual arts as well as in performances, stories and proverbs. The artworks are also meant to highlight our human successes and shortcomings. Themes include notions of nurturing, power, wisdom, transformation, beauty and aggression.
Visitors should also consider what animals are not present. Many animals and birds-such as the frog, wild pig, porcupine, rabbit, domestic cat, ibis, jackal and scarab beetle-are missing because of space constraints or the availability of loan objects. More curious are those animals that simply do not seem to appear in art, notably the zebra and the cheetah. Others, such as the giraffe, can only be found in rock art. The gorilla and ostrich appear in well-known, but very rare, artworks.
The National Museum of African Art has partnered with the Discovery Theater and the education departments at the National Postal Museum, National Zoo and National Museum of Natural History to present a host of multidisciplinary activities at each site to further explore the Artful Animals theme.