NSU's African Art Highlights Culture Through the Individual

A new exhibit at NSU Art Museum explores making connections — one individual to another and one culture to another.

"The African traditional art collection complements the museum's large collection of post-World War II Cobra," says Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator of the museum. "[Cobra was] a radical group of European artists based in Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam that looked to African traditional art for inspiration."

"African Art: Highlights of the Permanent Collection" is just that, a selection featuring 59 works from the more than 300 African items in the museum's permanent collection. They've been carefully curated for special attention from a project initiated in the 1970s under museum director George Bolge.

At the time, the museum's aim was to build a distinctive collection. The focus was on traditional art from Sub-Saharan Africa, with an emphasis on West Africa.

"This exhibition highlights the distinctive style of individual artists working within traditions."

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For the current exhibition, guest curator Marcilene Wittmer was tasked with choosing works that would open a window not only to African art and culture but also to the mark of the individual artists. To that end, Wittmer, professor emeritus and curator at the University of Miami, chose mostly three-dimensional pieces, such as monumental carved wooden doors, abstract plank masks from Burkina Faso, shrine pieces, and ritual objects, in addition to smaller examples of African textiles, beadwork, pottery, and iron and copper alloy.

One of the most distinct works on view is an arugba, or ritual bowl, from the early 20th Century, attributed to master carver Areogun of Osi (circa 1880 to 1954). It's exhibited alongside a 1960 photograph taken while the bowl was used in the Shango shrine in Idofin, Igbana. By exhibiting the photo alongside the item itself, the bowl is given both personal and cultural context.

A helmet mask from the Women's Bundu or Sande Society in the area of Sierra Leone or Liberia (circa 1900) represents the only known type of mask to be worn by women in African dances. The female officials who wore the masks supervised the initiation of girls into adulthood. These masks were carved by men who followed the instructions of the woman who commissioned it, specifying details and other iconographic features that were unique to the wearer.

"This exhibition highlights the distinctive style of individual artists working within traditions of a workshop or a region as they respond to use, commissions, influence of Christian missionaries, and a growing foreign art market," Clearwater explains. "The trend in research on African traditional art is to recognize individual artists and workshops as opposed to just noting a region or a tribe. By documenting these works, the NSU Art Museum's collection will be an important resource for curators and researchers."

"African Art: Highlights of the Permanent Collection"
Sunday, July 24, through October 23. Opening preview and reception Saturday, July 23, at NSU Art Museum, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-5500;

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Dina Weinstein