The Dallas Museum of Art acquired its first African object in 1969, but began exhibiting African art as early as 1954, with the exhibition “African, Oceanic, and Primitive Artifacts.” In 1962, at the urging of Margaret McDermott, a Dallas art collector, the museum hosted a show called “The Arts of Man.” Participating in midcentury utopian efforts at cross-cultural understanding through the arts, “The Arts of Man” united a range of objects from global cultures. According to Roslyn Adele Walker, Senior Curator of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific and the Margaret McDermott Curator of African Art, this exhibition was a crucial moment for the origin of Dallas's interest in African art. McDermott and her husband eventually acquired a collection of African sculpture from Clark and Francis Stillman, a couple who had been collecting Congolese sculpture since the early 1930s. When the McDermotts donated the collection to the DMA in 1969, they saw it as a contribution not only to the museum, but also as an effort to contribute to the cultural improvement of the city of Dallas. Dallas journalists identified the importance of this gift not only for its beauty and historic meaning, but for its ability to foster pride and collective consciousness among Dallas's African American community (Walker 2010:14–15). The Stillman collection, donated by the McDermotts, was composed primarily of sculpture from the Congo. The scope of the museum's geographic coverage expanded in 1974 with another donation made possible by the McDermotts—this time from a prominent collection of African art in New York City, the Gustave and Franyo Schindler collection. The Schindlers had purchased works from an impressive range of nations in West and Central Africa. This set of objects had the added benefit of expanding the DMA's collection to include large statuary and masks.
When Dr. Walker, former director of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, joined the staff of the DMA in late 2003, she sought to increase the diversity of styles, techniques, and media through her acquisitions. She also began to represent more of the major art-producing cultures of the continent and focus on balancing the relationship between Central and West Africa in the collection. Several key acquisitions from Nigeria accomplished this task.
Walker's contribution to the DMA's permanent collection of African Art is on full display in her skillful new installation of the collection. The African gallery opens with a color-coded map of Africa that shows the impressive swath of the continent represented in the installation and provides visitors an initial measure of geographic context. This wall graphic sets the tone of the collection installation, which is informative and welcoming to African art novices. Cheerful saffron walls add life and character to the exhibition's installation (Fig. 1). Walker has written a thoughtful and substantive extended label providing both analysis and context for almost every work in the exhibition. The exhibition's didactics masterfully manage the difficult task of speaking to a range of audiences, providing information accessible to children, the general public, and scholars alike.
The introductory text offers an inclusive welcome to visitors, reminding them that Africa is origin and cultural home for all of humanity. In this divisive political moment, such efforts to center Africa in America's cultural consciousness are a necessary practice. The exhibition provides substantial social and political context to clarify the works on view and further support the installation's project of cross-cultural communication. The introductory text also sets the stage for the exhibition's interpretive framework. As Walker explains, African art is made for “life's sake” rather than “art's sake.” Museums generally struggle with the reality that African art was not meant to be shown in a museum—these were performative objects. Walker has clearly put substantial thought into this dilemma, and frames the objects in a manner that does justice to their original life and purpose. The artifacts on view were carried in processions, worn in ceremonies and dances, displayed as royal regalia—their form and function are inherently linked.
In the wall text and the catalogue, Walker foregrounds the integration of art and craft with the dance, song, and other ritual and celebratory contexts in which African art appears. To this end, she divides both the exhibition and the book into chapters reflecting distinct social functions: “Themes of Governance,” “The Cycle of Life,” “Decorative Arts and Design,” “Trade,” and “Masking.” The relationship between object and performance is particularly compelling in the Masking section of the exhibition. Along with certain objects, such as the awe-inspiring d'mba headdress, visitors can watch a video of a similar object in use, allowing them to see the life and dynamism inherent in what might otherwise be misinterpreted as static sculpture (Fig. 2).
While most of the objects are conservatively displayed in traditional wall cases, the section displaying large-scale masks and headdresses makes for a striking surprise in the center of the gallery (Fig. 3). A diverse range of media and styles are grouped together, providing a bold and colorful picture of the diversity of approaches to masking practices. The Egungun costume currently on view, from the Republic of Benin, is especially dazzling (Fig. 4).
Decorated with colorful sequined panels depicting whimsical animals and layers of appliqué velvet, the costume is designed to move and spin dynamically with its dancer. Walker's label explains that the movement of the garment is meant to send “breezes of blessings” to the Yoruba audience. This description of the costume, along with a video of an Egungun festival performance, allows the viewer to connect the shimmering surfaces of the textile with the movement and effects it was designed to evoke.
The earliest work on view from the collection and one its highlights is the terracotta Sokoto male figure, dated c. 200 bce to 200 ce (Fig. 5). With his expressively down-turned eyes, pursed lips, and stylized beard and decorative patterning, the figure is reminiscent of the more well-known Nok sculpture from the same time period. Positioned close by is another early work, a striking standing female figure from Mali, produced by a pre-Dogon culture and dated in the eleventh–thirteenth century (Fig. 6). Photographs don't capture the sensuous surface of this sculpture, which continues to exude glistening rivulets of oil from its years of ritual anointment.
Moving through the gallery to the Trade section, Walker reminds the viewer that African art has never developed in isolation. One particularly interesting moment here is a vitrine that juxtaposes a Senufo standing female figure with a small Henry Moore sculpture (Fig. 7). This vitrine is not far from a case housing several sculptures depicting European colonists (Fig. 8). Through these strategic placements, the careful visitor can see the movement of influence in multiple directions. Whether this influence is related to political or aesthetic relationships, the exhibition demonstrates African art's integration with global art history and its continued power to transform Western viewership.