Holiday Promotion: Receive a free T-shirt with a $50 purchase in the Bookstore, through December 15. Learn More

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.
Female Figure with Four Children
Equestrian Shrine Figure
Mask with a Superstructure Representing a Beautiful Mother (D'mba)
Mask Representing a Female Ancestral Spirit (Nòwo)
Female   Head

About African Art

The Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of art from Africa south of the Sahara began with gifts of several textiles in 1937 and now consists of 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 600 African objects from Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933. Concurrent with the 2004 gift, Benenson endowed a new curatorial position, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Curator of African Art, and the Gallery’s Department of African Art 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.

Meet the Curator

Barbara Plankensteiner

Barbara Plankensteiner, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Curator of African Art, was formerly Curator of Sub-Saharan Africa Collections, Chief Curator, and Deputy Director at the Weltmuseum, Vienna. There she curated the international exhibitions Benin: Kings and Rituals, Court Arts from Nigeria and African Lace: A History of Trade, Creativity, and Fashion in Nigeria and edited the exhibitions’ catalogues, which have become standard references in the field. She has taught courses and seminars at the Austrian Academy of Fine Arts and in the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology and the Department of African Studies at the University of Vienna, where she earned her PH.D. Her main research interests are the art of the Benin Kingdom and of Southern Nigeria, African textile arts, and museology. At the Gallery, her first task will be the reinstallation of the African art galleries, due to open in fall 2016.

Download CV

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.
Learn more

Lamp, Frederick John. “Ancient Terracotta Figures from Northern Nigeria.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2011): 49–57.
Download PDF

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).
Learn more

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.
Learn more

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.

Continue Exploring

Collection Objects
African Art, Jewelry
Collection Objects
African Art, Masks
Collection Objects
African Art, Tools and equipment
Collection Objects
African Art, Sculpture
Holiday Promotions, Exhibition Catalogues
Collection Objects
African Art, Sculpture