Treasures marks the National Museum of African Art's 25th anniversary as a Smithsonian museum. The first in a new exhibition series, Treasures is an old-fashioned show about African art, reminiscent of the exhibitions that represented avant-garde opinions of the early 20th century. In 1926, Paul Guillaume, Parisian connoisseur and collector, cautioned readers to defer learning about the history and meaning of African art until they had studied African art purely as an art form, because to do otherwise "tends to obscure one's vision of the objects as sculpture."

I chose the familiar--traditional sculpture--to reveal aesthetic variances, to see African art as form, not function. Treasures, therefore, is about visual exploration and aesthetic discovery. Our understanding of African art is prescribed by what we see, and often, what we see is based on works displayed in museums. So, "Treasures" is just that--a sampling that gives us a peek into the realm of African art.

Westerners and Africans alike revere well-made form. Each admires skillful technique and execution, exquisitely rendered forms, pattern, balance, symmetry, surface treatments and a sense of completeness. African artists, however, strive to portray more than that. As metaphor or symbol, their artworks embody the world of ideas and beliefs--confirming their notions about themselves, life and death, the universe and the spiritual realm. Yet, despite our cultural presumptions that separate art from life, often separating aesthetics from meaning, and our ignorance of or indifference to what it means and how it is used, African art astonishes.

An eclectic display of sculptures from East, West, Central, and southern Africa created between the 15th and 20th centuries, Treasures reflects individual choices and aesthetic preferences, mostly masks and statuary. Treasures the exhibition encompasses all the word denotes--rarity and value, uniqueness and preciousness, and stylistically distinctive works. Included are: works that have never or have seldom been exhibited in the United States; works that have never been published; three renowned Yoruba artists, Olowe (c. 18751938), Areogun (c. 18801954) and Bamgboye (c. 18951978); and works whose collection histories are complete (e.g., the Bamum male figure and Olowe's bowl with figures) or are historically significant.

Many of the works on exhibit in Treasures were on view in several exhibitions that planted the seeds of abstract modernism in the United States. Mexican artist Marius de Zayas, Parisian Paul Guillaume and Parisian dealer Charles Ratton were not only avid collectors of African art, but vigorous advocates for the inclusion of African art as part of art appreciation. Their efforts resulted in pivotal exhibitions in New York City in the early 20th century. In 1914 Zayas convinced Alfred Steiglitz, pioneering photographer and founder of the gallery "291," to exhibit 18 sculptures from Guillaume's collection of African art. A year later, when Zayas became part owner of the Modern Gallery, which was central to the modernist movement, he organized the second, more important exhibition of African art, African Negro Wood Sculptures. American painter and photographer Charles Sheeler documented the works in a limited edition folio of the same name in 1918. And, in 1935, Ratton supported and lent 62 sculptures to the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition African Negro Art, which with the above-mentioned exhibitions, validated African art's position within the critical mainstream of American modernism.

Still other works on exhibit in Treasures were owned by champions of modernism in the United States and Paris. For instance, Ratton owned two Fang reliquary guardian figures and the Hongwe reliquary guardian figure now in the collection of the National Museum of African Art. Guillaume and later Ratton owned the Baule female figure. Art patron Agnes E. Meyer purchased the Fang reliquary guardian figure (and possibly the Kongo kneeling female figure and child) from the Modern Gallery exhibit in 1915. Both these works were given to the museum in 1972.

Treasures reflects the continuing tradition of exhibiting African art as art and the important role private collectors have in shaping our perceptions about African art. For the past 90 years, Africa's rich repository of diverse and sophisticated forms, designs and compositions has enhanced the art and museum worlds. By presenting African art as an ensemble of visual delights, a trove of treasures, we comprehend what Robert Farris Thompson terms "purity of presence." As the Yoruba say, "Anyone who meets beauty and does not look at it will soon be poor."


A limited-edition portfolio beautifully illustrating all the artworks in Treasures is available for purchase from the museum's Museum Store . The set of 73 loose-leaf sheets, which are suitable for framing, is reproduced in full color and packaged in a premium quality, cloth-covered box lined with silver metallic paper. For more information or to order, email or call 202.786.2147.

Pictured above (top to bottom):

Teke peoples, Mayama style, Republic of the Congo
19th century
Wood, cloth, mother-of-pearl buttons, accumulative materials
Height 49.5 cm (19 1/2 in.)
Collection of the Robert T. Wall Family

Funerary figure
Mahafaly peoples, Madagascar
Late 19th to early 20th century
Height 96.5 cm (38 in.)
Collection of Nancy and Robert Nooter

Senufo peoples, Côte d'Ivoire
19th century
Height 116.8 cm (46 in.)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Brian Leyden

Lobi peoples, Burkina Faso
20th century
Wood, ritual accumulation
Height 113.6 cm (44 3/4 in.)
Collection of Diana and Tom Lewis