Arts of Africa

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Our collection of art from Africa consists of over 900 examples of masks, sculptures, textiles, and ceramic and metal objects. Connected to the Ancient World galleries through a room devoted to Egypt, the gallery for the arts of Africa presents visual traditions from the continent’s western and central regions, which form the largest part of the collection. From West Africa, masks and sculptural arts of the Bamana, Baule, Bwa, Dan, Dogon, and Senufo peoples figure prominently, as do the masks and sculptures in wood and ivory from the Kongo, Kuba, and Lega peoples from Central Africa. These regional strengths are accented by singular examples of artistry from various places on the continent, such as a 19th- or 20th-century funerary marker from the Bongo peoples of South Sudan, a trophy head (atwonzen) from the Bamileke peoples of Cameroon, and several significant examples of ceramic figural sculpture from the Inland Niger Delta region of Mali.

While living in Paris in 1932, the de Menils purchased their first object from Africa, a face mask (mukuyi or okuyi) made by the Punu or Sira peoples of Gabon. This acquisition was perhaps prompted by the de Menils’ introduction to the diverse arts and people of Africa during the early 1930s in Paris. Opening three days before the young couple’s wedding, the 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale was a large-scale celebration of European colonialism. The event attracted several million visitors to its venues in the Bois de Vincennes that included numerous mock villages populated with imported colonial subjects and recreations of monumental architecture, such as the Angkor Vat temple in Cambodia. Members of the Surrealist group of artists, with whom the de Menils would become close friends and patrons, publicly criticized the fair and mounted The Truth about the Colonies (La verité sur les colonies), a counter-exhibition to protest the corruption of their artistic muses—the Indigenous cultures of Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Americas.

Following on their early exposure to the arts of Africa, the de Menils assembled the majority of the African pieces between the 1950s and 1970s, while in Houston and New York. As the collection grew, the de Menils enlisted the expertise of scholars to refine their understanding of art from Africa and to assist them with their art historical research. Notable additions to the collection during this period include an 18th-century portrait altar of an Oba, or ruler, from the Kingdom of Benin and an exquisite 20th-century Bamana ciwara headdress from the Bougouni region of Mali.

African Art from The Menil Collection, a catalogue highlighting selections from the collection was published in 2008 and is available from the musem Bookstore and online.

Watch a video recording of “African Art at the Menil Collection” (June 12, 2006), an illustrated lecture by Kristina van Dyke on the formation of John and Dominique de Menil’s African art collection.