A New View of African Art

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This February visitors to the Art Institute will experience a newly reconsidered and reinstalled gallery of African art.

A digital rendering of the new design for the African art galleries.

A computer rendering of the new gallery. 

Though the gallery retains its geographic arrangement of the collection, illustrating the vastness and diversity of the African continent as well as the relationships between neighboring cultures, our new installation welcomes four new acquisitions as well as several exceptional loans from the Field Museum and presents fresh perspectives through both the physical display and interpretation of every object on view.

With a revised color scheme and focused lighting, the new African art gallery affords a more intimate experience that showcases the exceptional artistic quality and cultural resonance of individual objects. Key works from the collection anchor and elucidate the gallery’s four broad regional divisions: Northern Africa and the Sahel, Coastal West Africa, Central Africa, and Eastern and Southern Africa, while multiple maps throughout the space help orient visitors to the geography of these regions. A fifth, thematic section focuses on our important holdings of ceramics and textiles, two art forms predominantly created by women and still often overlooked by museums and collectors alike. 

To better communicate the various political and religious contexts of these works, the gallery’s interpretive materials extend beyond static object labels. Interactive digital labels provide a deeper view of the cultural and historical background of select collection highlights, illuminating the startling diversity and dynamic, performative nature of the continent’s arts. These digital offerings delve into a wide range of themes, including the colonial context of the acquisition history of many works, the contributions that individual artists have made to the variety of visual styles, the archaeological origins of modern artistic traditions, and the long-standing presence in Africa of both Islam and Christianity.

Enhancing the gallery further is a new audio tour of a dozen works featuring the insights of various external collaborators, ranging from scholars working at different Chicago universities to a practitioner of the Yoruba divination system to the internationally renowned Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. This multivocal and multidisciplinary approach exponentially expands upon the single curatorial voice that has dominated museum displays until the very recent past and better mirrors the diversity of the cultural traditions represented by the multitude of objects on display in the new gallery. 

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