The original bequest of African art for the Princeton collections, given in 1953 by Mrs. Donald B. Doyle in memory of her husband (class of 1905), comprised works collected prior to 1923 from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including a rare Chokwe headrest and a royal Kuba box. Many subsequent gifts have come to Princeton from alumnus Perry E. H. Smith ’57, including a remarkable Chokwe chair and Lega maskette, and from H. Kelly Rollings ’48, whose emblem of the Leopard Society is a stunning accumulative object from the Cross River region between Nigeria and Cameroon. Princeton’s collection was greatly enhanced in 1998 by a bequest from John B. Elliott ’51, which comprises objects of daily use and adornment as well as luxurious Akan gold pieces, including a linguist’s staff. The acquisition in 2003 of a Yoruba stool with Esu iconography facilitated the growth of the Museum’s Yoruba collection, as did a pair of royal ibeji twin figures, a resplendent beaded king’s ritual tunic, and an Ifa divination bowl carved by the master sculptor Areogun of Osi-Ilorin. A Bamileke elephant mask from Cameroon and Kurumba antelope headdress from Burkina Faso strengthen our collection of art from masked performances. Most recently, an important suite of gifts, promised gifts, and acquisitions from the Holly and David Ross Collection has brought works of exceptional quality to the collection, including a beaded royal Bamum flywhisk, a Kuba chief’s belt covered in beads and cowries, and a Kota reliquary sculpture in copper and brass.
Collecting and exhibiting African art has been a priority at the Princeton University Art Museum in recent years, leading to a significant increase in the number and quality of African objects entering the collections. The Museum has organized several exhibitions of African art, including Life Objects: Rites of Passage in African Art (2009), Kongo across the Waters (2014), and Surfaces Seen and Unseen: African Art at Princeton (2016).
The works exhibited in the gallery of African art change regularly but always reveal the continent’s diversity of artistic production. Installations include works from sub-Saharan Africa, including objects of prestige and daily use, royal regalia, and sculptures by Kuba, Akan, Yoruba, Bamum, Pende, and other artists. The collection includes excellent examples of masks and figures—made of wood, ceramic, metal, or textiles, or covered in beads—that mark rites of passage or facilitate interaction between humans and spiritual entities. Magdalena Odundo’s burnished clay vessel (Untitled, 1990) engages with the traditional roots of contemporary practice.