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The arts of Africa are diverse and powerful vehicles for creative expression. Artistic traditions reach back 70,000 years to the time of rock art but are also vital, new, and ever-changing in the present world. The Art Institute’s collection, widely recognized for its fine quality, features noteworthy examples of wood sculpture, masks, ceramics, furniture, textiles, and beadwork from western, central, southern, and eastern Africa. (Art made north of the Sahara Desert, as in Egypt, is often kept in other areas of the museum.) While some of the art forms in the collection are no longer produced, others remain vitally important in community life. Although we do not know that names of many of the artists who created these objects, we should not assume they were anonymous.

Museums often give incomplete pictures of objects of African origin. In the galleries, one may quietly contemplate a work of art, but in its original context that same object might have been encountered in a whirl of dance, costume, song, and crowd. Some objects were not meant for public display and might only have been taken out on special occasions, seen by privileged individuals or kept in a private residence. Because many materials used in African art are ephemeral in nature, museums tend to favor durable wooden and metal works.

The works included in this unit include those from the western Sudan, Guinea Coast, central Africa, eastern Africa, and South Africa. The selections range from the late 14th century to the mid-20th century. The Art Institute’s collection also includes works by contemporary African artists, including Teardrop I by Kenyan artist Magdalene Odundo and Feather Pink by Nigerian-born artist Yinka Shonibare.

The Art Institute has a diverse collection of African art, one that continues to grow to this day.


Pair of Headdresses (Ci Wara Kunw), Mid-19th/early 20th century. Bamana; Baninko region, Mali. Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment.