“Awesome! This is beautiful,” said a delighted visitor as three kids watched her scroll through iPad images at the “Family Day” opening last Sunday of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ refurbished African art galleries.
Her overheard endorsement seemed to echo throughout the gallery as treasure-hunting kids chattered about gold weights, couples gaped at a fantasy coffin shaped like a giant lobster, and other visitors studied rugs and pottery, jewelry and weapons, royal regalia and fanciful musical instruments.
In one of those periodic upheavals that rumble through art museums, the MIA has totally reworked its African art collection, buying new things, sending others to storage, adding technological whiz-bang, and reinstalling it all in renovated galleries.
The result is a stripped-down display of about 125 objects, roughly half the number previously on view and only a sliver of the 2,100-piece African collection. Arranged thematically, they are a mix of masterpieces and utilitarian objects from across the continent. To give visitors an intimate experience, the museum has largely dispensed with display cases, instead setting most things on wide, open-air platforms that people can stroll around.
“It’s a little risky, but we hope people will behave,” said curator Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, the museum’s African expert, who oversaw the redesign.
Plans for the $745,000 renovation were developed by museum staff and architects from Minneapolis-based VJAA in consultation with local teachers, national scholars and members of the African diaspora, particularly the Twin Cities’ Ethiopian and Somali communities.
Intended as a teachable introduction to African art and culture, the show incorporates touch-screen maps, iPad pictures and videos, and engaging, jargon-free labels with handy drawings to help visitors navigate the many cultures, histories and art forms.
Several recent acquisitions are spotlighted in the “form and function” section consisting of about a dozen large ceramic vessels — beer pots, vases, a stylized teapot — surrounded by beautiful Berber rugs from Morocco, including a dramatic abstraction, a colorful patchwork of recycled cotton, and what appears to be a densely woven landscape of undulating hills and villages.
A case of handsome ceremonial knives and swordlike blades introduces the theme of “authority” and the regalia that reinforced it, including royal portraits, bronze animal sculptures and wooden figures.
Spirituality, or “invoking the invisible,” is an omnibus topic ranging from an ancient Egyptian mummy case to a snake-wrapped 1940s carving of a water spirit, and a Boli, a 2-foot-tall, mud-encrusted sculpture resembling an American buffalo. A kind of portable altar, the Boli is a formerly sacred object once used in secret rituals by the Bamana people of Mali. Its cracked and crusty surface consists of layers of dried animal blood, millet and other material applied to a wood-and-cotton doll. Such objects are now desacralized as the Bamana increasingly convert to Islam, said Grootaers, who purchased the piece at a tribal art fair in Paris.
Additional displays feature musical instruments, including a wooden drum resembling an anteater with a piggybank slit in its back, jewelry and even a couple of contemporary photos. An unusual Swahili door from about 1850 is decorated with floral carvings that mingle Islamic, Persian and Indian motifs, illustrating how African cultures have long traded ideas, designs and goods around the world.
The galleries’ black ceiling and charcoal walls, occasionally brightened with panels of cobalt and crimson, introduce a note of somber drama. The colors were picked, Grootaers said, in response to community suggestions that a more conventional museum palette of black-and-white wasn’t an “inviting” setting for African material. Previously the walls were a warm beige, and given the many colors that thrive in Africa, the new hues seem unnecessarily gloomy.
The much-ballyhooed new technology, however, is a big draw, especially for tech-savvy kids. Attached to comfy leather benches, eight iPads have info about 24 objects, including videos and interviews made in Africa. They augment an 82-inch interactive map on which trade routes, migration patterns, slave trading and other information can be illuminated with a finger touch. Throughout, information is delivered in chatty, irresistibly fun lingo including such impertinent questions as “How is beer like making babies?”
In an innovation that many Africanists may applaud but others may find surprising, Egyptian art now mingles with art from sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, an ancient mummy case stands near the gaily painted, lobster-shaped “fantasy coffin” from Ghana, and a life-size ancient Egyptian granite sculpture joins a group of wooden carvings from various African cultures.
This geographic shift is a trend among Euro-American museums where Egypt has previously been contextualized as a “Mediterranean” culture linked to Greece and Rome as a foundation of European imagery. While geographically defensible, and politically correct, mixing ancient Egyptian artifacts with mostly 19th-century African material can be jarring. Even the material — Egyptian stone; wood, fabric and occasionally metal from the rest of the continent — reinforces the notion that these cultures are more different than alike.
The museum has invested much time, money, scholarship and community effort in this rethinking of African art. More developments are in the works, among them an additional gallery of contemporary African art including fashion, photography and design. Together they should enable the African collection to attract the audience it well deserves.