The collection of African arts at Princeton covers some 2,500 years of creativity, from the ceramics of the Nok culture to contemporary works created in recent decades. Comprising approximately 750 works, the collection includes excellent examples of masks and figures used in secular or sacred practices, including rites of passage and interactions between humans and spiritual entities. Its holdings are particularly strong in nineteenth- and twentieth-century tradition-based work by artists from Western (Akan, Yorùbá, Bamum) and Central (Kuba and Pende) Africa.
The Museum’s African collection began in 1937, with the acquisition of a single wooden carving attributed to Ethiopia, followed by an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian diptych in 1946. The collection grew in earnest after the first major bequest of African art for Princeton, given in 1947 by Joyce Doyle in memory of her husband, Donald B. Doyle, Class of 1905. The bequest comprised works she collected and purchased before 1923 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including a rare Chokwe caryatid headrest and a delicately patterned 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 Ngbe (or Ekpe) Society emblem is a stunning accumulative object from the Ejagham peoples of the Cross River region. 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 prestigious Akan gold regalia, including a staff used by a royal spokesperson and a “soul-washer” badge.
The 2003 acquisition of a stool with Èṣù iconography facilitated the growth of the Museum’s strong collection of Yorùbá art from Nigeria, as did a pair of ibeji twin figures, a resplendent beaded tunic with royal iconography, and an Ifá divination bowl carved by the master sculptor Àreògún of Osi-Ilorin (ca. 1880–1954). A Bamileke elephant mask from Cameroon and a Kurumba antelope headdress from Burkina Faso strengthen the collection of elements from masquerade practice. 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 Kongo nkisi power figure, a cowrie- and bead-laden Kuba chief’s belt, and a copper- and brass-wrapped Kota reliquary sculpture. The Museum’s holdings of West African textiles have steadily increased, with exceptional examples of Ewe and Akan kente as well as indigo-dyed Yorùbá àdìrẹ and aṣọ-òkè joining the collection in 2018.
Works by modern and contemporary artists from Africa and its diasporas are included in the African art collection, as well as in the modern and contemporary, photography, campus collections, and works on paper collections. A standout in the collection is Magdalene Odundo’s burnished clay vessel (Untitled, 1990), which engages with the traditional roots of contemporary practice by drawing from a variety of global ceramic practices.
Collecting and exhibiting African arts 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 arts, 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).