Researching the Arts of Africa

Africa is a continent so vibrant that it cannot have a single “art,” nor a single art history, but arts, with an emphatic plural and their many histories. The collection of African arts at the Princeton University Art Museum presents us with a snapshot of that diversity, covering some 2,500 years of artistic production on the continent. Over the past year, these holdings have been the subject of significant research, made possible by a 2017 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of collections discovery. This three-year grant furthers the Museum’s efforts to improve access, transform understanding, and support future scholarship and teaching from the collections.

As Mellon Collections Research Specialist, my work centered on the physical examination, research, and cataloguing of artworks, a complex task supported by colleagues throughout the Museum. No day of research was the same, given the scope of the African holdings. Most of the approximately 700 objects connect to religious practices, royal courts, or everyday life and beliefs. Sometimes described by art historians as “traditional,” these works are anything but static. Whether carved from wood, sculpted from clay, or threaded from beads, they reflect both the modernity and heritage of their makers. Admirable from a technical and formal perspective, they provide insight into how artists responded to the cultural, social, and stylistic concerns of their times.

Communicating the specificity of each object—and the underlying “who, what, when, where, why, and how”—was central to the cataloguing process. My review allowed me to standardize object records and titles, along with 140 corresponding constituent records and 700 geographic records; create a glossary of materials; and add descriptions, provenances, bibliographical data, and exhibition histories for all objects. Complementing my own research, three senior specialists consulted on distinct sets of works, each drawing upon their years of field-based research: Dr. Arthur Bourgeois on Yaka and Suku art, Dr. David Doris on Ogboni society metalwork, and Dr. Rowland Abíọdún on Yoruba art.

The extent of the collection, now that its records are complete, has been made clear. Artists from more than 140 distinct ethnic groups and hailing from over 22 countries are represented, with particular strengths in Western and Central African sculpture. Already, the influx of data about these objects has sparked renewed faculty interest in teaching with African arts. In addition, a series of collection themes are slated to appear on the Museum’s website.

Reviewing the collection resulted in unexpected finds. Two stone sculptures that entered the Museum as works by Leman Moses, for example, have been reattributed to Bernard Matemera (1946–2002), a pioneering Zimbabwean stone sculptor. Fantastical round-bodied beasts with bulging eyes, they have the hallmarks of the mid-twentieth-century “Shona” or “Zimbabwean stone sculpture” style. Equally noteworthy, an Ethiopian diptych icon has been redated from the nineteenth to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The distinctive geometric image of the Virgin and Child with Saint George is one of only two known icons created by a master painter from Tigray, a part of northern Ethiopia from which few early works survive.

Eighty years after the first work made by an African artist entered the Art Museum’s collections, African arts have become an integral part of the institution. With the works now fully catalogued and available online for discovery by both campus and international audiences, the stage is set for renewed appreciation of the collection in its own right and as part of the greater global story of art history told within the Museum’s walls.

Kristen Windmuller-Luna, Graduate School Class of 2016

Collections Research Specialist for African Arts