New Discoveries in the Gallery of African Art

"Design thinking”—a contemporary concept often used in engineering and business—describes a practice that empathizes with a user’s needs and experiments to develop and refine a solution. While not African in origin, it brings attention to the ways African artists have addressed aesthetic, social, and spiritual demands within their work. 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. Some of the objects can be called "multitools" for combining multiple functions in a single object, such as a snuff spoon that can be worn as a decorative comb or a headrest that also functions as a scepter. Other objects speak to pastoralist peoples’ need for moveable and packable objects that also connote personal prestige. The sculptor who made a Z-shaped headrest elevated his object by playing with design conventions: he eliminated one of the two crossed diagonal supports generally found on southern African headrests to achieve a striking dynamism.

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). Nguni artist, South Africa, Snuff spoon with comb, 20th century. Horn (?), beads, and thread. Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951. (1998-675)

The gallery also features several stunning new acquisitions and loans, including a sculpture by Magdalene Odundo (see above). A woman’s raffia skirt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, worn on ceremonial or funerary occasions, has embroidered graphic borders that echo the scarification patterns that encircled the waists of Mbun women. Two recent works by South African photographers demonstrate ways in which artists have been examining the legacies of apartheid and crafting a visual culture for a nonracialized South Africa.

The installation is the product of a Museum Voices Colloquium, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in which Museum staff were joined by Chika Okeke- Agulu, associate professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology; consulting curator Holly Ross; and guest consultant Alex Bortolot, curatorial content strategist at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.