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The Divine Comedy Poetry Contest

The exhibition The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists, opening at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art on April 8, 2015, explores Dante’s The Divine Comedy through the work of over 40 African artists.

Curated by the internationally acclaimed writer and art critic Simon Njami, this dramatic multimedia exhibition reveals the ongoing global relevance of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic as part of a shared intellectual heritage. Including original commissions and renowned works of art by more than 40 of the most dynamic contemporary artists from 18 African nations and the diaspora, this visually stunning exhibition will be the first to take advantage of the entire museum space, including the pavilion and staircases.

Celebrated artists like Nicholas Hlobo, Julie Mehretu, Wangechi Mutu, and Yinka Shonibare MBE explore the themes of heaven, purgatory, and hell with video, photography, printmaking, painting, sculpture, fiber arts, and mixed-media installation. In so doing, they probe diverse issues of politics, heritage, history, identity, faith, and the continued power of art to express the unspoken and intangible.

Submitting a Work To the Contest

Guidelines: One original and unpublished work of poetry, not to exceed 500 words, inspired by 1 or more of the following works from the exhibition (see pages below). Any format is permitted. All submissions must be primarily in English.

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Prospective docents

prospective docents

Dear Prospective Docent,

Thank you for your interest in the Docent Program at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Our docents perform one of the most important functions at the museum: introducing and deepening the museum experience for groups and visitors of all ages. It is a rewarding experience and an essential part of our education program.

Program Benefits
Joining the National Museum of African Art’s docent corps offers access to:

  • behind the scenes information on upcoming exhibitions
  • lectures from curators and artists
  • private tours of African art collections and exhibitions at other sites. invitations to member-only receptions and special events hosted at the museum
  • a discount in the NMAfA gift store and other Smithsonian museum gift shops
  • a strong community of individuals with a love for the African arts, history, and culture
  • other discounts and privileges

Program Requirements

As applications are reviewed, we will look for the following:

      1. Creativity: A willingness to learn and use new methods to engage museum audiences.
      2. Flexibility: Exhibitions range from those focusing on traditional arts to contemporary arts. Special exhibitions are a regular part of the museum’s galleries. Docents are needed to cover a range of artistic traditions and periods, and docents are expected to cover both collections galleries and special exhibition galleries. Docents interested in tours and carts are also expected to work with a range of age groups, and training will prepare docents for effective teaching methods with all ages.
      3. Commitment: Docents are expected to make a commitment of two full years of docent service upon completion of training.
      4. Dependability: Docents are expected to arrive early to prepare for their assignment and not to cancel unless there is an emergency.
      5. Love of the arts: Although past coursework in art or art history or docent training is not required to start the program, experience with art history or museums will be beneficial. Familiarity with African art, history and culture is a plus.

Opportunities for volunteers

  • to provide tours of the museum’s collections and temporary exhibitions to walk-in visitors and pre-scheduled groups, which may include school groups of various age levels and special tours for VIPs;
  • to assist in performing research on topics as needed for exhibitions or programming;
  • to assist with public programs such as lectures or performances;
  • to engage walk-in visitors in conversation through mobile carts containing teaching objects, images, and activities;
  • to respond to visitor questions and needs and provide information on the museum’s collections and exhibitions.

Open House

Individuals interested in learning more about the NMAFA docent program and in submitting an application must attend the open house event scheduled for Saturday, March 14 from 10am to 1pm. The open house will feature tours from the museum’s docents, further information about the docent program and training schedule, and opportunity to meet museum staff and see the museum’s art programs in person.

Training Schedule

Docent training consists of 15 sessions, on Wednesday evenings and occasional Saturday mornings beginning in June and ending in August, concluding with qualifying exams. One absence is permitted.

A survey of the National Museum of African Art collections will be presented, as well as thorough training in the traditional and contemporary arts of Africa. Docents will also receive extensive training in presentation techniques and how to effectively teach in a museum setting. Training will be conducted by museum staff and experts in the fields of African art, history and culture.

Following Training

Ongoing training sessions are required throughout the year on approximately the third Wednesday of every month from 6:30 – 8:30pm. In consultation with the Docent Coordinator, you will be assigned a schedule based on the Museum’s needs and your preference(s). Docents are required to complete 60 hours per year (at least two shifts per month), and attend at least 8 out of 10 training sessions per year. Field trips are also planned to other museums. Evaluations will occur throughout the year.

Our docents at the National Museum of African Art are a sincerely dedicated and an extremely talented group. We look forward to your application to this program. Your love of African arts and culture and participation in this program will make you a part of the magic of bringing art and people together. Thank you very much for your interest.

Please complete the attached application form (no handwriting please) and attach a copy of your resume. Submit both via email by April 17, 2015 to the Ade Afolayan at If you have any questions about the docent program, please email Reema Ghazi at

Alternatively, you can download the pdf directly here.

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Sailors and Daughters: Early Photography and the Indian Ocean

Arab Ladies, Zanzibar A.C. Gomes and Son Postcard, collotype Zanzibar, c. 1910 TZ 20-17 Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Arab Ladies, Zanzibar
A.C. Gomes and Son
Postcard, collotype
Zanzibar, c. 1910
TZ 20-17 Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

The Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa project is proud to present Sailors and Daughters: Early Photography and the Indian Ocean World, the Museum’s first-ever online exhibit made possible by a gift from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center. Sailors and Daughters reveals the expansive maritime societies of Zanzibar, the east African coast, and Persian Gulf. From the 1840’s, cameras traced the international migrations of traders, sailors, sons, and daughters through Indian Ocean ports, continuing trade that dates back over five millennia. For instance, a highlight of the exhibition brings together early images by German photographer Hermann Burkhardt of Oman in 1904, which resemble photographs captured in Stone Town. East African cities flourished as hubs of both land and sea trade routes, which extended to the central African interior, the Middle East, Indian Ocean islands, western India and the Far East.

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African Mosaic: 50th Anniversary room

Face mask (pwo)

Chokwe artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola
Face mask (pwo)
Early 20th century
Wood, plant fiber, pigment, copper alloy
39.1 x 21.3 x 23.5 cm (15 3/8 x 8 3/8 x 9 1/4 in.)
Museum purchase, 85-15-20

In 1963, during the height of the civil rights movement, retired U.S. Foreign Service officer Warren M. Robbins (1923–2008) established the Center for Cross Cultural Understanding to “show the rich creative heritage of Africa, and to underscore the implications of this heritage in America’s quest for interracial understanding.” The following year, Robbins expanded his vision and opened the Museum of African Art. Originally housed in a Capitol Hill town house once owned by the great intellectual, abolitionist, former slave, and statesman, Frederick Douglass, the museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1979 by an act of Congress and was renamed the National Museum of African. Over the course of its five decades, the museum has become home to more than 12,000 works of art that speak to both the talent and skill of diverse African artists and communities, and the unique history of this institution and the individuals who have helped to shape it.

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