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.
Rhythm Pounder in the Form of a Female Figure (Doogele or Poro Piibele)
Human Head
Bondo Society Mask (Nòwo)
Mask, "The Owner of the Deep-Set Eyes" (Oloju Foforo), Surmounted by a Figure of the Priestess of the Goddess Oshun
Female Figure (Biiga)
Mask with a Superstructure Representing a Beautiful Mother (D'mba)

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 2,000 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 figurative sculpture 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 African art gallery is currently closed to the public for approximately two months while the collection moves to the first floor, where an updated selection of objects will be reinstalled with a fresh design. The new display of works will allow visitors to look at the collection from a multitude of angles, deepen their understanding of the rich and varied art traditions of the African continent, and appreciate the aesthetic power of the artworks. It will juxtapose well-known cornerstones of the collection with rarely shown works, reflecting on their materiality, surface treatment, iconography, original function, or specific historical context.

One of the works that will be on view in the reinstalled gallery is a miniature bocio figure. It is carved from wood and wrapped tightly in a fiber rope. Bocio literally means “empowered cadaver”; these figures are related to the Vodun religion of West Africa, whose followers believe in mysterious forces or powers that govern the world and people’s lives. Vodun sculptures are thought to protect humans but also empower them and help them achieve their goals. Cords and binding feature prominently in bocios and possibly refer to the violence and trauma that West Africans suffered for centuries through the slave trade. Bocios offered their owners a potent strategy to respond to difficult and threatening social conditions.

Barbara Plankensteiner

The Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Curator of African Art

Unidentified Fon artist, Human Figure (Bocio), Republic of Benin, Agonly style, early 20th century. Wood, fiber, and feathers. Yale University Art Gallery, Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection

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.

barbara.plankensteiner@yale.edu

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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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