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These Highlight selections of artworks in the permanent collection of the National Museum of African Art pull together some favorite works of art, genres, and themes, including those that have been the focus of some of the museum’s award-winning special exhibitions from the past and present. Highlight selections may change over time, so please do visit again!

Africa ReViewed: the photographic legacy of Eliot Elisofon

“Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” showcases the African photography of celebrated Life magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon and explores the intricate relationships between his photographic archives and art collection at the National Museum of African Art. It was Elisofon’s images-perhaps more than any other American photographer’s-that framed America’s perceptions of Africa and its diverse arts and cultures during the 20th century. The exhibition was on view November 21, 2013 – December 14, 2014.

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts

“African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” shows how the sun, moon, stars, and the phenomena of lightning and rainbows inspired the arts of Africa for thousands of years. This exhibition was on view at the museum June 20 – December 9, 2012, before opening at the Newark Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Carlos Museum at Emory University.

African Textiles

Textiles in the collection of the National Museum of African Art come from all over the continent and are made locally from both traditional and imported materials, and include factory printed cloth. Many are worn, others are for public or household display.

Artful Animals

Diverse African artists have depicted an array of domestic and untamed animals because they are beautiful, dangerous or regal. Some are portrayed individually, others blend species or even animal and human traits. The depicted animals can be symbols of leadership, or teach history and moral values. Many design elements come from direct observation of the animals in nature.

Classical Treasures

These 130 works of art from the collection of the National Museum of African Art were chosen to reflect the variety of cultural groups, materials and genres of objects represented in the collection. While many are well known, others are curator's more personal choices to expand our perception of African art.

Collections on Exhibit

Works of African art currently on view in the galleries.

Contemporary African Art

The National Museum of African Art is home to the nation’s largest public collection of African art, consisting of over 1,100 modern and contemporary works of art. Painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, time-based media artwork, and mixed media works by emerging talents, internationally acclaimed legends, and historical figures are all represented. Please do check back as this section is updated frequently.

Currents: Water in African Art

Water is in all of us—to live, we need water to drink. Featuring artworks from the museum’s permanent collection, this exhibition proves that water is one of most potent forces on earth. Its currents flow through myths, metaphors, and rituals. Diverse and wide-ranging in material, time period, style, and intended use, the objects in this exhibition span the continent of Africa to explore the importance of water for both practical and artistic purposes. The exhibition opened in June 2016.

Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor

“Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa” reveals the diverse ways in which African artists and communities draw power from, interpret, and protect the land. This exhibition was open at the museum April 22, 2013 – February 23, 2014 before traveling to the Fowler Museum at UCLA, where it was open April 19 – September 14, 2014. The third venue at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art was open October 15, 2015 – March 6, 2016.

Media File

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness

Be your best. This is the quest that the greatest of heroes model for us. Through their journeys, struggles, and triumphs, exceptional individuals exemplify values that we celebrate in tales of heroic accomplishment.

Through art, artists tell such stories—stories of the world’s current complexity, but also visions of a world that could yet be. Heroes: Principles of African Greatness features artworks from the National Museum of African Art’s permanent collection that tell the story of key heroic principles and personages in Africa’s arts and history. Throughout, core values are considered as each artwork is paired with a specific historic African individual who embodies the value expressed in the selected work.

Discover Africa’s heroes—some well-known, others perhaps surprising—and see artworks in new ways.

Highlights from the Disney - Tishman Gift

In 2005, the National Museum of African Art received a gift of 525 objects from the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection. These rare and iconic works of art, primarily from West and Central Africa, were instrumental in developing interest and understanding of African art in the United States.

I am: Contemporary African Women Artists

Taking its name from a 1970’s feminist anthem, I Am… Contemporary Women Artists of Africa draws upon a selection of artworks by women artists from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s permanent collection to reveal a more contemporary feminism that recognizes the contributions of women to the most pressing issues of their times. With experimental and sophisticated use of diverse media, the 27 featured artists offer insightful and visually stunning approaches to matters of community, faith, the environment, politics, colonial encounters, racism, identity, and more.


The collection of the National Museum of African Art holds many wonderful examples of artworks made wholly or in part of ivory. As stewards of this collection, the museum values its role in protecting and preserving these beautiful, historical, and important works of art, while at the same time, helping to raise awareness of the contemporary threats to elephant populations.

Loans to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens at the National Mall on September 24, 2016. Objects from the collection of the National Museum of African Art will be featured in two of their inaugural exhibitions, "Slavery and Freedom" and "Cultural Expression."


In action, masks can take on a wide range of functions. In Africa, some masks serve in judiciary contexts, others have been deployed to educate younger generations or portray honored members of society. The contexts in which masks appear are as varied as the diversity of their forms and styles. Masks within museums are often incomplete however, since they usually lack the costumes or the words, music and movements that are necessary to the mask's full identity. Despite the status of masks as iconic of African art, it is important to note that masks are neither worn nor performed across the whole of the African continent. In fact, there are likely more Africans who have never seen a mask dance than who have.

New Acquisitions

Explore some of the newest gifts and purchases that are part of the collection at the National Museum of African Art.

Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa's Arts

Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Arts, the National Museum of African Art’s most recent, large-scale presentation of its collection, is the first to offer broad thematic connections between artworks across the spectrum of time, place, and medium. Visionary aims to get visitors to look with fresh and focused insight and, in so doing, to see works of art—and each other—with new eyes.

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