The works exhibited in the gallery of African art have been installed to reveal the continent’s immense diversity of artistic production. On view are works from west, central, and south Africa, including objects of prestige and daily use, royal regalia, sculptures that mark such rites of passage as birth, initiation, and death, and others that facilitate interaction between humans and spiritual entities.

The original bequest for the collection, made in 1953 by Mrs. Donald B. Doyle in memory of her husband, comprised works collected prior to 1923 from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Among the objects is a rare double caryatid headrest, an example of the art of the Chokwe people, and a distinctively shaped Kuba box. In recent years gifts have been made principally by Perry E.H. Smith, including a remarkable Chokwe chair and Yaka mask, and by H. Kelly Rollings, whose emblem of the Leopard Society is a remarkable accumulative object from the Cross River region, which marks the boundary between Nigeria and Cameroun. Princeton’s collection was greatly enhanced in 1998 by the bequest of John B. Elliott, which includes a vast number of objects of daily use, adornment, and Akan gold pieces, including a linguist’s staff and a fine cast gold chief’s bracelet. The acquisition in 2003 of a Yoruba stool marked the addition of a sculptural masterpiece that was the focus of devotion to the god Esu. While the collection is relatively small in comparison to others in the Museum, it does reflect a growing interest in the field among alumni and friends.

Efut artist. Headdress

The Idea of Kongo in Contemporary Art

The exhibition Kongo across the Waters begins its exploration of the vibrant art of the kingdom of Kongo (located in present-day Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Republic of the Congo) in the fifteenth century—but the story is an ongoing one. In recent years, contemporary artists working in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas have engaged with the kingdom of Kongo’s history, spiritual traditions, and aesthetics.

This fall, Chika Okeke-Agulu, associate professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology, taught the seminar “Kongo Art,” which engaged with the exhibition Kongo across the Waters to explore the artistic qualities and legacy of the Kongo kingdom, as well as the effects of Belgian colonial rule (1885–1960) on modern art in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Juliana Ochs Dweck, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Collections Engagement, spoke with Professor Okeke-Agulu about how contemporary artists look to Kongo arts for inspiration.

Authority Embodied: Nkisi

Kongo across the Waters notably presents a rich selection of Kongo minkisi (singular nkisi). A nkisi is a container that holds an ancestral spirit as well as empowering materials or medicines. 

Royal Treasures of the Asante Court

The African gallery’s display of Akan regalia is one of its most popular, used equally by university students, Museum docents, and visiting K–12 students and teachers.

New Acquisition: Magdalene Odundo Ceramic

Magdalene Odundo (Kenyan, born 1950, active in the United Kingdom), Untitled, 1990. Burnished clay, height 35.2 cm. Museum purchase, Mary Trumbull Adams Art Fund (2013-28). Photo: Bruce M. White

Considered one of the premier ceramicists working today, Magdalene Odundo, born in Kenya, produces ceramic objects whose beauty emanates from their voluptuous forms and shimmering surfaces. These qualities characterize the Museum’s recent acquisition of an early classic Odundo work from 1990: a roundbodied pot with a graceful widemouthed neck and a smooth-burnished dark surface.

New Discoveries in the Gallery of African Art

Mbun artist (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kwilu-Kongo River Basin), Woman’s skirt, before 1912. Raffia palm fiber, 10.2 x 73.7 x 113 cm. Museum purchase, Hugh Leander Adams, Mary Trumbull Adams, and Hugh Trumbull Adams Princeton Art Fund (2012-94).

A new selection of works in the African gallery features extraordinary examples of African design, sculptures whose form is influenced both by practical need and by material and aesthetic qualities.