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African Art

The Gallery’s collection of art from Africa comprises some 3,000 works from across the continent dating from antiquity through the 20th century.
Female Figure with Four Children
Portrait Mask of a Woman (Ndoma)
Rhythm Pounder in the Shape of a Female Figure (Doogele or Poro Piibele)
Mask Representing a Male Ancestor (Chihongo)
Vessel
Female Figure (Biiga)

About African Art

African art has a long history of study and appreciation at Yale University. The first exhibition dedicated to African art at the Yale University Art Gallery was held as early as 1954, not long after the Louis Kahn building first opened, and featured highlights from the collection of Ralph Linton (1893–1953), the former Sterling Professor of Anthropology. Linton, a major proponent of what was then called “primitive” or “non-Western” art and a sculptor in his own right, had collected wood carvings mainly from West and Central Africa that were both visually striking and technically masterful. The 1954 exhibition represents one of the first museum displays in America of African art as art rather than as an ethnographic specimen. The Linton Collection, purchased for the Gallery by Mr. and Mrs. James M. Osborn, built upon a small selection of North African textiles donated in 1937 by Mrs. William H. Moore and provides a foundation for the current collection.

While the scholarship of Yale professors such as Robert Farris Thompson and Sylvia Arden Boone made Yale a center for the study of African art in the 1980s and 1990s, it was not until 2004 that the Department of African Art was formally established at the Gallery through the generous donation of nearly 600 works from the collection of Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, and the concurrent endowment of a new curatorial position, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Curator of African Art. Benenson was drawn to works he perceived as “loud” and “aggressive” and as pushing the boundaries of the African art canon. In collaboration with art historian and previous Gallery director Susan Vogel, Benenson established a truly unparalleled collection of African art that was specifically intended for a museum and contained works by known masters as well as African popular arts. Subsequent milestones for the Gallery’s African art collection include a large number of antiquities donated by SusAnna and Joel B. Grae; exquisite North African jewelry donated by Labelle Prussin, Ph.D. 1973, and her daughters; and, most recently, a major collection of African decorative arts donated by the late Paul F. Walter.

The collection is now made up of some 3,000 works dating from antiquity through the 20th century, with over 200 cultural groups represented. The 2021–22 History of Art undergraduate seminar “The Artist in African Art” focuses on the 70 works in the collection by artists whose names are identified and whose workshops are the subject of renewed scholarly attention.

Note from the Curator

Breaking from a thematic arrangement of objects, the Laura and James J. Ross Gallery of African Art has been partially reinstalled, with works of art organized according to cultural group. It showcases a number of newly acquired textiles and focuses on works by identified artists.

As part of the new display, a series of mesmerizing photographs of African rock-art sites has been projected onto the convex exterior of the Louis Kahn stairwell, transforming a once-neglected corner of the gallery into a “modernist cave” that brings to life some of Africa’s most ancient cultural heritage sites. Organized in partnership with Eric Lin, Assistant Professor Adjunct of Technical Design and Production and Yale Repertory Theatre Projection Supervisor at the Yale School of Drama, the projection consists of 40 images taken by Kenyan photographer and rock-art specialist David Coulson, who in the 1980s launched a mission to document this important tradition all over the African continent, from Morocco to South Africa. In 2013 the British Museum, London, acquired digital files of these photographs, which docu­ment over 800 sites, from Coulson and the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), through the generous support of the Arcadia Fund. The archive, freely available on the British Museum website, serves as a vital record of sites that are vulnerable to both natural and man-made destruction.

James Green
Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Assistant Curator of African Art
The virtual display of African rock art projected onto the Louis Kahn stairwell, Yale University Art Gallery, showing Five Figures and an Antelope, Algeria, Illizi Province, Djanet district, Tin Tazarift site, Round Head period, 9000–6000 B.C.E. Pigment on rock. British Museum, London, Trust for African Rock Art, inv. no. 2013, 2034.4127. © TARA/David Coulson. Photo: David Coulson

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.

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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.

james.green@yale.edu

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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.
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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).

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.