“Design for Mobile Living: Art from East Africa” was organized by Kevin Tervala, Curatorial Fellow for the Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, with Shannen Hill, Associate Curator for African Arts at the Baltimore Museum of Art. One of the latest short-term installations to be featured in the rotating and thematically driven Focus Exhibition Gallery space, their presentation connected seamlessly with the newly installed objects from the African collection in the renovated Alan and Janet Wurtzburger African Art Gallery. Sponsored by Amy L. Gould and Matthew S. Polk, Jr., “Design for Mobile Living” focused on the artists' creative use of design elements, such as color, geometry, and shape. Those same elements were employed in the exhibition layout as an ingenious way to organize and showcase these rarely displayed artworks. The approach effectively highlighted the significance and special qualities of a creditable variety of East African art forms and also subtly integrated them visually with the rest of the collection on display as a cohesive segment relative to the corpus of art from the continent. This was accomplished by a consistent approach in the use of wall and case text themes, complementary background hues, and inventive mount and case displays, carried through from the main galleries.
The reinstallation in the main galleries was equally successful on several levels, with a geographically and chronologically balanced selection of objects from the collection and an organizational structure focused on contextual relationships and connections to cultural and social histories. Located in an easily accessible space near the Zamoiski East Entrance and East Lobby on the first floor of the historic BMA building, the new African galleries were expanded to cover more than 4,000 square feet of floor space. This is three times the size of the former exhibition area and double the number of objects. The 2015 reopening of the galleries was supported with funding from the State of Maryland, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the City of Baltimore, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, Gregory K. Lehne, and a special endowment for the African Program funded by Amy L. Gould and Matthew S. Polk, Jr. The reinstallation of approximately eighty-five objects from more than forty different kingdoms and regions was curated by Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, former Associate Curator for African Art for the Baltimore Museum of Art, who assumed her current role as Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the fall of 2014.
The two entrances into the long, initial section of the permanent collection galleries are flanked by vertically shelved wall cases that offer clear, close views of the tiny distinctions in sculptural form represented by over 100 Akan gold dust weights (Fig. 1). Anchoring the central wall space between them is a striking curved blue pedestal that supports a constellation of wooden Sande society helmet masks (Fig. 2). Intentional or not, the rows of chest-level and eye-level mounts read as a nod to Pam McClusky's similarly clustered and poled presentation of African masks and helmets at the Seattle Art Museum. It offers the viewer an enhanced engagement with the intricate design work on the masks, which include embellishments such as charmingly rendered eyeglasses, small birds, flowers, and other culturally symbolic motifs that reference traditions and proverbs of the women's secret society.
A scenographic repetition is carried through to the next gallery, also anchored by two of the curved blue pedestals. Here are further opportunities to view two large-scale objects and their intricate design details from many different angles—the Great Mother headdress (d'mba) and the Banda headdress from the Baga region of Guinea (Figs. 3–4). The visual variations at play in these galleries—rendered by curved cases, complementary background colors, airy lighting, and unique mounts for objects—create an especially compelling and interactive experience throughout the space. Three overarching themes guide the object organization and textual descriptions: the artist, the audience, and the period. These relatable concepts run consistently throughout the eminently readable labels and signage and support the goal, expressed by BMA Director Doreen Bolger in a press release related to the reinstallation, to “foster an environment of reflection, inquiry, and engagement with the works of art.” The wall texts concisely describe the ways the objects would have been used in their original contexts, and include digestible theoretical considerations under section titles such as “Conspicuous Consumption,” “Public Art,” and “Sacred Art.”
A similar format was employed for texts and sections in the “Mobile Living” temporary exhibition galleries, where case signage defined concepts and led the viewer to consider objects grouped under thematic titles that included “Focus on Shape,” “Focus on Geometry,” and “Focus on Color.” “Design for Mobile Living” presented a sample of twenty-nine artworks created by several of the more familiar nomadic cultural groups from East Africa, including the Maasai, Samburu, and Turkana societies, as well as Somali and Kalenjin objects. According to the museum website, most of these works had never before been displayed. The timing for this showcase of gems from their collection connected the BMA to the surge of interest in contemporary East African art on the international scene, and also situated the museum within what seems to be a growing number of venues that are presenting exhibitions with Indian Ocean, Swahili, and East African themes.1
The requisite beaded necklaces, belts, armbands, and bracelets on display were stunning twentieth-century examples of the colorful geometric designs superbly fashioned by Maasai and Turkana artists (Fig. 5). They were complemented by several other artfully arranged and thematic cases that featured objects mounted at varying heights to create a sense of motion, visually representative of the functional, mobile, and fluid characteristics of their East African forms (Figs. 6–7). Highlights from the “Focus on Monochromatic” section included an unmarried Turkana woman's apron of leather and ostrich egg shell beads (Fig. 8), reminiscent of similar examples created by the nomadic groups of Ethiopia or the Sudan, and a Samburu milk vessel with leather straps arranged to encircle and imbue the dark, bulbous form with a sense of movement. An exceptional Maasai woman's cape (enkishopo), trimmed and decorated with leafy vein-like beaded designs, graced the “Focus on Geometry” section. The appealing, fanlike display of the cape in this case could only have been improved if there were a beaded Iraqw apron from Tanzania in the BMA collection, too, that could sit beside it for cultural and artistic comparison. The “Focus on Figure” case—notable for its examples of figural forms rarely represented in East African art—included Turkana fertility dolls and children's dolls.
It is clear that exceptional consideration and thought fueled the design plans for the new African gallery spaces and the presentation of objects for both the general collection and the temporary exhibition at the BMA. The contemporary styling and presentation of objects in a fresh variety of layouts was visually appealing, intellectually and theoretically engaging, culturally approachable, and thought-provoking for a wide range of visitors.
Other examples include the “Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa” project exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC (2015–2016) and “World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean,” Krannert Art Museum at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2017–2018) and Fowler Museum, UCLA (2018–2019).