SPECIAL ADVISORY: In accordance with Yale University’s revised COVID-19 protocols, the Yale University Art Gallery will close to the public beginning Friday, October 16, 2020. 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.
Bondo Society Mask (Nòwo)
Rhythm Pounder in the Shape of a Female Figure (Doogele or Poro Piibele)
Mask Representing a Beautiful Mother (D'mba)
Female Figure (Biiga)
Slit Gong (Idoro) with a Human Torso

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 collection has now moved to the first floor, where an updated selection of objects has been reinstalled with a fresh design. The new display of works allows 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 juxtaposes 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 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.

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

Related Article

Prestige Cloth

Prestige Cloth

The Gallery has acquired a number of impressive African textiles in recent years, and an exceptional prestige cloth from Nigeria is a notable addition to the collection. Dating from the 19th century, this type of cloth is known as aṣọ-òkè in the Yoruba language, and it would have been worn around the waist as a wrapper. Previously owned by a noble family from Ondo, a city located about 30 miles south of Akure, the Ondo state capital in southeastern Yorubaland, the cloth was bought by the African textile scholar Duncan Clarke in 2018 and subsequently acquired by the Gallery in 2019.

Meet the Curator

James Green

James Green, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Assistant Curator of African Art, was born in Johannesburg. He received a B.A. from Keble College, University of Oxford, and an M.A. from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and he completed his PH.D. in 2017 at the University of East Anglia. His dissertation focused on the art of the Teke peoples of West Central Africa from 1880 to 1920 and involved fieldwork at Mbe, Republic of the Congo. In 2013 he cocurated the exhibition Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. While a fellow and research associate in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he contributed to the 2015–16 exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty. At Yale, James ensures that the Gallery’s important collection of African art is a vibrant and engaging resource for all visitors. His dual interest in collaborating with Yale students and faculty and cultivating partnerships with museums and universities in Africa helps to illuminate Africa’s rich art traditions and establish tangible links with contemporary art practices.


PDF icon Download James Green's CV

James Green

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.

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).

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.

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.