African Art

The African art collection comprises nearly 2,000 objects, representing 3,000 years of African history, with masks, figures, utilitarian objects, jewelry, ceramics, and textiles from throughout the continent. Highlights include ritual figures and masks from West and Central Africa, and terracotta antiquities from the Sahel area.
Mask Representing a Male Ancestor (Chihongo)
Female Figure with Four Children
Male Figure (fragment)
Mask, "The Owner of the Deep-Set Eyes" (Oloju Foforo), Surmounted by a Figure of the Priestess of the Goddess Oshun
Female Figure (Biiga)

About African Art

The Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of art from Africa south of the Sahara had its beginnings with gifts of several textiles in 1937, and it now numbers some 1,800 objects in wood, metal, ivory, ceramic, and other materials. Major milestones in forming the collection occurred in 1954 with the acquisition of the Linton Collection of African Art, purchased for the Gallery by Mr. and Mrs. James M. Osborn, and in 2004 with the gift of the collection of nearly six hundred African objects from Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933. Concurrent with the 2004 gift, Mr. Benenson endowed the new position of the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Curator of African Art, and the Department of African Art at the Yale University Art Gallery was born. In 2010 the museum received a collection of approximately two hundred African antiquities from SusAnna and Joel B. Grae.

The collection is strongest in ritual figures and masks from West and Central Africa, and terracotta antiquities from the Sahel region. There are also several specialized collections, such as Christian crosses from Ethiopia and miniature masks from Liberia. Several ancient African civilizations are represented, including the Djenne, Nok, Bura, Sokoto, Koma, Sapi, and Benin. Some of the outstanding objects in the collection include: from the Sahel area, a Bamana wooden equestrian figure and a Nok male figure with arms upraised; from the Upper Guinea Coast, a Senufo figurative rhythm pounder and a Temne bush cow mask; from the Lower Guinea Coast, an elaborate Ejagham skin-covered headdress and a Fante appliquéd banner; from Central Africa, a Luba female figure with bowl and a Fang female reliquary figure; and from southern Africa, an elegant Zulu stool.

The permanent-collection galleries present approximately forty African antiquities from throughout West Africa, a display of immense ceramic vessels from across the continent, a number of musical instruments, ritual dance costumes, silver jewelry from the Sahel, and masks and figures from hundreds of African cultures.

Note from the Curator

The Gallery has recently acquired a splendid group of objects from southern Sierra Leone, originating from the sacred female institutions for healing and initiation among the Mende and other peoples. A selection of these objects is now on view in the Laura and James J. Ross Gallery of African Art, including two women’s helmet masks from a women’s institution known as Bondo or Sande and a superb female figure representing the institution’s initiated members. In researching the objects for display, new discoveries have been made. One of the Gallery’s female figures, for example, once belonged to former President William Tolbert, Jr., of Liberia, and one of the female helmet masks was pictured in performance in 1901. Another female helmet mask has at least 12 “sisters” carved by the same artist, who has been designated “The Master of the Rainbow Eyes.” Visitors can learn more about this remarkable artist in an article in the 2014 volume of the Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin.

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Frederick John Lamp

The former Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Curator of African Art

Female Figure, late 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Corine Thompson in memory of Dr. Eugene E. Thompson, Jr.

Further Reading

Ezra, Kate. African Ivories, exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984.

Goldwater, Robert. Senufo Sculpture from West Africa, exh. cat. New York: Museum for Primitive Art, 1964.

Lamp, Frederick John, et al. Accumulating Histories: African Art from the Charles B. Benenson Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2012.
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Lamp, Frederick John. “Ancient Terracotta Figures from Northern Nigeria.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2011): 49–57.
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Lamp, Frederick John. Art of the Baga: A Drama of Cultural Reinvention, exh. cat. New York: Museum for African Art, 1996.

Lamp, Frederick John. “Charles Benenson and His Legacy of African Art to Yale.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2004): 26–43.

Lamp, Frederick John, ed. Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin: African Art at Yale (2005).
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Rubin, William. “Primitivism” in Twentieth-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, exh. cat. 2 vols. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984.

Thompson, Jerry L., and Susan Vogel. Closeup: Lessons in the Art of Seeing African Sculpture from an American Collection and the Horstmann Collection, exh. cat. New York: Center for African Art, 1991.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Black Gods and Kings. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1976.

Thompson, Robert Farris, and Joseph Cornet. Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds, exh. cat. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1981.

Visonà, Monica Blackmun, et al. A History of Art in Africa. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Vogel, Susan. Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art, exh. cat. New York: Center for African Art, 1991.

Vogel, Susan. Baule: African Art/Western Eyes, exh. cat. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1997.
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Walker, Roslyn A. African Women/African Art: An Exhibition of African Art Illustrating the Different Roles of Women in African Society, exh. cat. New York: African-American Institute, 1976.

Weber, Joanna, ed. Call and Response: Journeys of African Art, exh. cat. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2000.

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Exhibition Catalogues
Collection Objects
African Art, Sculpture
Collection Objects
African Art, Sculpture
Collection Objects
African Art, Jewelry
Collection Catalogues
Collection Objects
African Art, Masks