African Art: Western Eyes

African Art: IntroductionHow African art objects traveled from Africa to our museums highlights the long historical relationship between the West and Africa. From the 15th century onward, Europeans and Africans have been exchanging ideas and commodities. Many objects arrived in the West as curiosities, anthropological specimens, souvenirs, and trophies meant to celebrate the success of colonial campaigns. Especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the collection of African expressive culture for museums became integral to imperial policy. These objects were presented to the public to justify colonial aspirations while concurrently introducing the artistic traditions of Africa to Western audiences. But it was not until the first half of the 20th century, when artists such as Pablo Picasso found inspiration in their abstract and elegant sculptural forms, that African objects were redefined as "Art" in Western museums.

The present display of African objects in the Kresge Art Museum reveals the constantly changing meaning of objects as they travel from one culture to another. In Africa these objects were integral to religious and political institutions and routines of daily life. Most were not intended for quiet aesthetic scrutiny typical of a museum experience, rather they were made important through human agency. Whether a performer wears a mask, a religious specialist uses a figure for therapeutic purposes, or an ambassador presents an emblem of royalty to a political ally--these objects are kept in motion as key mediators in social transactions.

Today certain African artistic forms have come to symbolize and inspire African-American pride. African imagery is at the forefront of popular celebrations of multiculturalism, serving global commercial and local educational strategies. While the meaning of African art changes depending on its context, it continues to serve as a catalyst that inspires individuals in Africa, America and beyond to explore the vitality and diversity of African cultures.

Project Supervisor: Professor Raymond Silverman
Guest Curator: Prita Meier

Kresge Art Museum
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