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.
African Art Highlights
Watch the Video
Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition
With Olúṣẹ̀yẹ Adéṣọlá, Anne Turner Gunnison, Efeoghene Igor, Will Rea, and Cathy Silverman
Reinstalled African Art Galleries Feature Virtual Display of Rock Art
Conservation of an Urhobo Maternity Figure
Conservators were able to devote time to the repair of a Urhobo figure of a nursing mother during the Gallery’s closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Gallery actively researches the provenance of all works of art in its collection.