Established in 1882 as an encyclopedic teaching museum, the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey, is home to a group of nearly 750 works of African art, covering almost 2500 years of artistic production on the continent and in its diasporas (Fig. 1). Founded as the Museum of Historic Art at what was then called the College of New Jersey, it was created in tandem with the Department of Art and Archaeology, whose interests profoundly shaped its collecting and exhibition practices.1 The Museum's global holdings of over 100,000 objects span human creativity across time and space, with specializations in ancient Greece and Rome, Asia, western Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Africa.
The Museum's African collection, started in 1937, focuses on historic African arts from the sub-Sahara, with particular strengths in central and western African sculpture and masks. These have been complemented in recent decades by contemporary works by artists from the continent and its diasporas. Closely linked to the university's teaching program, the presentation of African works at Princeton—as both objects of ethnographic and aesthetic interest—has mirrored changing attitudes toward non-Western art both in the field and on campus.
NON-WESTERN ART AT THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
The collecting, research, and presentation of African arts at Princeton have always reflected the academic interests of its faculty and have varied across eras as well as by department or campus institution. In the mid-1800s, organizing the world—whether by sorting rocks, assembling fossils, or classifying people—had captured the campus's attention. Given this focus, African arts were first collected and displayed at Princeton through the lens of ethnology and natural history.
Following a slightly earlier trajectory than the Art Museum, and a separate collecting and exhibiting ethos as well, the E.M. Museum of Geology and Archaeology (also known as the “Guyot Museum” and the “Museum and Art Gallery”) housed non-Western objects in the present-day Faculty Room of Nassau Hall from 1874 to 1909, and later in Guyot Hall as the Museum of Natural History from 1909 to 2000.2 Curated by Swiss-American geographer Arnold Guyot, Princeton's first professor of geology and geography, the Nassau Hall installation's seemingly disparate “antiquities” (anthropological, ethnological, and archaeological objects) gained logic through their spatial organization, which reflected Guyot's linear view of societal progress (Turner 2004: 256). Starting with the dinosaurs at the rear of the room, progressing to so-called primitive cultures at the center (including both Native North Americans such as Inuits and “Pueblos,” as well as Neolithic Swiss lake-dwellers), the wunderkammer-like display approached its zenith with the plaster-cast Greek sculptures. The curatorial climax came with an oil portrait of George Washington, a reflection of Guyot's endorsement of the theory of American Manifest Destiny (Blackman 2017b). Present in both the museum and in his widely disseminated textbooks, Guyot's taxonomy was undeniably racist: It privileged a “normal” white Greco-Roman ideal (illustrated by a tousle-headed Apollo Belvedere) over other supposedly derivative races, including Africans.3 The separation of the races and their arts was underscored in 1889, when paintings and “fine arts”—such as the aforementioned Greek marbles—were moved from the E.M. Museum to the new Museum of Historic Arts (Turner 2004: 261).
The historical record is vague as to where African works fit into the physical layout of the Faculty Room exhibition, or if they were ever on view in this early space. Nonetheless, the hierarchical values of its collections and exhibitions—namely the separation of non-Western from Western arts because of their perceived evolutionary inferiority—are important for understanding later presentations of African objects in Princeton's Museum of Natural History. By 1905, the museum in Nassau Hall was organized into geology, paleontology, and archaeology sections, an apparent change from the now-deceased Guyot's original scheme, along with several “ethnological” subsections. Four years later, the present-day Geosciences Building (Guyot Hall) was built to accept the growing dinosaur fossil collection; like the last installation of Nassau Hall, it was arranged by scientific disciplines, foregoing Guyot's original “history of creation” scheme.
The contents of the former Museum of Natural History's African collection can be partially reconstituted from historic checklists, labels, and remaining objects. Among its earliest benefactors was Reverend Robert Hamill Nassau, a Princeton Theological Seminary alumnus. As described in 1911, Nassau's collection—called the “West Africa Exhibit”—was located in Guyot Hall's Gallery of Archaeology and Ethnology. A “war canoe prow” (discussed later in this article) was suspended from the gallery's central pillars (The Princeton Alumni Weekly 1911: 317). After being stationed for four decades in what was then German West Africa, Nassau had donated his collection to Princeton in 1902 and 1903.4 The group of objects ranged widely, encompassing jewelry, musical instruments, games, weapons, currency blades, raffia-fiber dresses from the Fang, and a red-feathered prestige headdress from the Cameroon Grassfields. A scholar of religion, Hamill was particularly interested in collecting, documenting, and writing about what he called “fetishes.” Typical among those “fetishes” Nassau gave to the Museum of Natural History is a linked pair of crochet-capped duiker antelope horns filled with empowered materials, described by an accompanying label as “Fetich—If put over a door, will reveal coming evil.”
Despite its new organizational system, non-Western art—particularly from Africa—remained an afterthought in the Museum of Natural History at Guyot Hall when compared to its “scientific” holdings of fossils and minerals, areas of intense rivalry and competitive acquisitions among museums that sought to distinguish themselves through large and varied collections. The collection of African material was again augmented on a large scale in 1925, when Dutch geologist Willem A.J.M. van Waterschoot van der Gracht gave a collection of works from eastern and southern Africa (present-day Tanzania, Somalia, Mozambique, Senegal, and Gambia). Gathered in the early twentieth century during one of his many trips as a consulting mining engineer, it ranged from weapons to headrests to beaded jewelry to Zulu hide shields and knobkerries. African material was on view in this new Museum of Natural History on Guyot Hall's first floor until the late 1950s or early 1960s, after which time it remained in storage.
When and if works from Africa ever returned to exhibition in Guyot Hall is unclear. Certainly by the mid-1970s, the Museum of Natural History's curators were eager to deaccession or sell African works donated by Nassau and van der Gracht—a mixture of “objets d'art” and “ethnological” objects, as curator Donald Baird described—or to transfer them to the art museum at Princeton or elsewhere (Baird 1974: 2). The entire Museum of Natural History was deinstalled in 2000, its spaces slowly overtaken by offices, classrooms, and new research units. Its collections were dispersed to other institutions, to storage, or elsewhere on campus (The Smilodon 2009: 1–2; Dalton 2000). The slow decline of the Museum of Natural History, and of its ethnology displays in particular, represented a gradual shift in academic interests on campus. No longer would the products of African cultures be viewed as simple artifacts of material culture, but—over the process of several decades—as art, deserving of a place in the Art Museum.
EARLY COLLECTING AT THE ART MUSEUM
Just a short walk across campus from Nassau and Guyot Halls, Princeton's historic homes of natural history, works by African makers were viewed through a dramatically different lens at the Art Museum. Although being in the museum lent African objects a kind of de facto “artistic merit” that they lacked in the natural history collections, that didn't mean that their importance or their makers were immediately recognized or emphasized. It took many decades of slow growth and increasing visibility for the African works to both be fully appreciated as “art” and take the pride of place that they hold in the Art Museum today.
From its nineteenth-century genesis, the purpose of the Museum of Historic Art (now the Princeton University Art Museum) was to collect and exhibit works of art to support the teaching goals of the university both in and beyond the Department of Art and Archaeology.5 Although both were founded in 1882, the Art Museum and the Department were born into a relationship which—while symbiotic—was not totally equal when it came to influence over Museum-related activities. Given the emphasis on direct teaching through objects, the interests of Art and Archaeology faculty drove acquisitions and exhibitions well into the late twentieth century, resulting in a collection whose strengths reflected curricular focus areas, such as photography or the arts of China (Bunnell 1976: 2). Lacking specialist curatorial or faculty stewardship until the 2000s, the African arts collection at Princeton grew without a definitive path for much of its history, like that of many American museums that belatedly prioritized Africa. While works from Pharaonic Egypt have been part of the Art Museum since its 1890 opening, the collection of African arts as we now know it began in 1937 with a single work, a carved wooden amulet said to be from Ethiopia.6 As was the case in other Museum departments, its holdings were shaped by the intertwined influences of scholarship, the art market, and the tastes of alumni donors, whose gifts make up the majority of the collection. Like most Western museums, the collection leans heavily towards works from western and central Africa, essentially excluding north Africa and Egypt because of an artificial division between the supposed Arab north and the black sub-Sahara. Shaped largely by the geographies of colonialism and the tastes of European modernists like Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, so-called discoverers of African art at the turn of the twentieth century who lauded its pure formal abstraction, these collections focused on a distinct canon of nineteenth and twentieth century sculptures and masks in wood. Highly influential, it set a circumscribed precedent for what was classified as museum-quality African art, despite the fact that African creative forms are far more diverse in terms of time, region, and material.
It was under the directorship of Frank Jewett Mather Jr. (1922–1946), a scholar of the European Renaissance, that sub-Saharan art entered the collection for the first time. Beyond the aforementioned Ethiopian pendant, Mather—a collector of European medieval and Renaissance art—gifted two outstanding Ethiopian Christian works from his personal collection to the museum after his retirement. Recently identified by this author as a rare late fifteenth or early sixteenth century icon, a small tempera on wood diptych depicting the Virgin Mary with Christ Child and an equestrian St. George demonstrates the bold geometry favored by northern priest-artists in Tₔgray (Fig. 2). One of only two known works by this painterly hand, it is a remarkable survival of pre-jihad (1529–1543) Ethiopian Orthodox art from the early modern era. Equally impressive is the eighteenth-century manuscript, which includes Gₔ'ₔz canticles, psalms, and praises to Mary among its sumptuously illuminated parchment folios. Potentially linked to the Empress Taitu Beitul (r. 1889–1918) by a drawing accompanying the volume, the manuscript's naturalistic shading and lushly painted textiles epitomize the style used at the courtly workshops in the capital of Gondär. There, courtly priest-artists transposed the stories of the Bible into eighteenth-century Ethiopia, setting many scenes in front of Gondär's iconic domed stone castles. In one evocative scene, Moses divides the Red Sea with the T-headed mäqwqwamiya staff of the Ethiopian Orthodox clergy, as Pharaoh (wearing a tiered Ethiopian crown) and his musket-bearing soldiers slide beneath the waves on the opposite page (Fig. 3).7 While decidedly a part of the continent, Ethiopia was kept academically apart from it until relatively recent years because of its majority Christian faith and painting-based artistic practices. Thus, the Museum did not acknowledge these works as “African” at the time of their acquisition.
With just three pieces from Ethiopia, the Art Museum's African holdings remained small until the mid-twentieth century, when the collection was transformed by a major gift. In 1947, a tenacious woman named Joyce K. Doyle made a gift of five trunks containing some 150 works from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then known as the Belgian Congo (Doyle 1947: 1). Joyce's husband, Donald B. Doyle (Class of 1905), had worked as a mine manager for Forminière, a Belgian lumber and diamond mining company based in the Kasaï region of that infamous colony between 1919 and 1923. From their homestead in Tshikapa, Doyle collected what she described as “bintus,” relying upon prospectors “to bring [me] the things that Africans made and had used” (Doyle 1976: 1). George Young, a Forminière diamond prospector, was her primary resource. Despite his professing to have “hated everything African,” it was through his hand that Doyle acquired Pende masks, dozens of Kuba cut-pile embroidered prestige cloths, and utilitarian objects ranging from arrows to sleeping mats. Photographs suggest that Doyle, who was fluent in Ciluba, also traveled herself to obtain some works (Brett-Smith 1983: 10). Among the pieces she collected from Kuba, Pende, and Chokwe artists—some of which may have been commissions or early tourist pieces—we count two frequently exhibited works, a Chokwe headrest and a Kuba cometic box.8 The visual balance of twinned caryatids on the headrest evokes the balance of order and leadership associated with Chokwe sovereigns (Fig. 4). With deep-set eyes and long beards, the figures recall both the elders and the deceased ancestors. Their pose—elbows on knees and hands cradling cheeks—further suggests a representation of the departed or of those dreaming to seek wisdom. Carved from a lustrous deep brown wood, the figures are further decorated with imported metal furniture tacks, alluding to the wealth Chokwe leaders amassed through both local and long-distance trade. A wooden cosmetic box carved by a Kuba artist to hold bright red tukula powder draws its form and elaborate interlaced patterns from a heritage of courtly prestige objects dating back to at least the sixteenth century (Fig. 5). Square on top and bottom and round in the center, its shape echoes that of baskets owned by those of humbler status.
Although collected around Tshikapa, the works of the Doyle collection provide insight into regional diversity and the ways in which trade allowed different artistic styles to come into mutually influential contact with one another, while still staying distinct. Many of the Kuba embroidered cloths, for example, came from far north of Tshikapa or were produced in styles meant to appeal to trading clients.9 Equally, Doyle's letters underscore how her appreciation for central African cultures—and her desire for them to be showcased in an art museum—was unusual, given the harsh and condescending opinions of other foreigners (such as Young) living in Congo in the 1920s. Accessioned in 1953, the Doyle gift remains one of the Museum's largest collections of African arts, and its sole fully field-collected grouping. Director and former Monuments Man Ernest DeWald (1946–1960) welcomed these “Central African curios”—as Doyle also described them—to the Museum, noting the lack of comparable works in the collection (DeWald 1947: 1; Doyle 1947: 1.)10
Despite this warm welcome, the archive suggests that works from the Doyle collection were not permanently exhibited in the 1950s or 1960s (Doyle 1976: 2). How often and where in the museum they were displayed during temporary exhibitions is unclear (DeWald 1953: 1). When African works appeared in the Museum's exhibition ledgers during this decade, it was invariably the Ethiopian manuscript, a perennial favorite in a series of annual Easter and Christmastime exhibitions.11 Nonetheless, at least a partial vision had been achieved for guiding the display of the African collection, as well as for reshaping its holdings, after Patrick Joseph Kelleher (1960–1973) took up the directorial helm in 1960. Describing the endowment for a Gallery of Native Arts (which would include works from Africa) in a future new building, Kelleher wrote, “It is our hope to exhibit in this gallery a broad selection of objects of various primitive cultures around the globe but slanted toward artistic quality rather than ethnological importance” (Kelleher 1962: 1). Following this mandate, a series of gifts during the 1960s from alumnus J. Lionberger Davis (Class of 1900) added new temporal and aesthetic depth to the collection with several brass works from the Kingdom of Benin, including a horn-blower from a palace plaque, an idiophone topped by the bird of prophecy, and a mustachioed Portuguese man, likely from an altar tableau. Standout among the works in this gift was a delicately cast latticework cylindrical bracelet with four Portuguese figures (Fig. 6). The mounted and standing figures alternate directions around the cuff, permitting both viewer and wearer to simultaneously appreciate the fine texture of their hair and the varied patterns of their seventeenth-century garments.
Despite the rapid growth of the collection, there was no specialist curator of African arts in the mid-twentieth century at Princeton, as remains the case today. Following the practices of the times in all of the Museum's collecting areas, there was also no dedicated gallery for African arts. Alongside works from Asia, Europe, and the Americas, African objects were included in exhibitions that moved around gallery spaces, their groupings frequently justified by the newness of their acquisition. While the Museum's records are vague on the details, Gillett Griffin, curator of Pre-Columbian and Native American art, was a least nominally responsible for approving the acquisition of some African objects and the coordination of exhibitions from the 1960s until his 2005 retirement, although less so from the 1990s onward. Other curators assisted in special projects.
NEW ENERGY ON CAMPUS, NEW GROWTH IN THE GALLERIES
During the 1960s and 1970s, the study of African arts and history took on new significance across the United States as the last of the African nations subjugated by colonialism gained their independence and African Americans across the country continued to fight for their civil rights and recognition. In the academic world—though not yet at Princeton—the study of African art history flourished as the first PhDs of the late 1950s began to train the next generation of scholars. On Princeton's campus, student demands prompted the 1968 foundation of Afro-American Studies (now the Department of African American Studies), incorporating faculty and visiting lecturers in history, politics, psychology, English, and African American studies.12 Three years later, Black Panther Party cofounder Huey Newton spoke to a crowd of nearly six thousand at Jadwin Gym, explaining the party's ideology of “revolutionary intercommunalism” (Elkind 1971: 1). Despite the first admission of black students during World War II, Princeton remained largely segregated decades later. To provide a social, cultural, and political environment that reflected the needs and concerns of students of color, the university established the Third World Center (now the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding) in 1971 (Mendez 2015). With a new focus on black culture and a strong student activist culture, the stage was set for a greater appreciation of African arts at Princeton.
Indeed, 1971 proved to be a significant year for African arts at Princeton. That year, the Museum hosted African Sculpture, an exhibition that faculty-curator of Asian Art Wen Fong described as the Museum's “best attended exhibition ever” (Fong 1971: 1).13 Organized for Princeton by the Museum of African Art in Washington, DC (now the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution), the exhibition African Sculpture was arranged at Princeton by Gillett Griffin (then curator of Indigenous Arts) and Lydia Puccinelli of the Washington museum (Ford and Hommel 1971: 10). Combining 160 works from the DC collection, as well as highlights from private collections, the exhibition emphasized both aesthetics and cultural context (Fig. 7). Divided into sections on the Niger and Congo River basins, as well as the western coast, it was accompanied by “the rhythms of African tribal music … recorded in Africa,” as well as a catalogue with text by William L. Hommel (Ford and Hommel 1971: 10). Programming included a lecture by George Nelson Preston, then of Livingston College, and a screening of Julien and Sam Bryan's 1969 film The Ancient Africans, lending further temporal depth to the presentation. As described by the Princeton Alumni Weekly, photographs of “African life” augmented the objects, primarily historic sculptures, textiles, and musical instruments. Despite organizers’ efforts to demonstrate the range of African arts from ancient times to the present-day, the impression of “African” cultural homogeneity—African culture, African belief, African sculpture—and an ethnographic tone prevailed in the local and campus press. “Though displayed as works of art, the objects are placed in relatively the same positions as they might have appeared in ritual or daiy [sic] use and their functions explained to enrich their meaning” (Town Topics 1971). African Sculpture was a landmark at Princeton for both its ambitious scale and its enthusiastic reception, attracting over 12,000 attendees. The show proved so successful, it was extended by several weeks: It would be Princeton's largest exhibition of African arts until the 2000s.
Despite occupying only an “unprepossessing corner in the galleries, between pre-Columbian and Chinese art,” the permanent collection continued to grow through gifts during the 1960s and 1970s (Rosenbaum 1979a: 1). It received a particular boost when Perry E.H. Smith (Class of 1957) deposited a significant collection of long-term loans and promised gifts, most of which have now entered the collection. A Kinshasa-based missionary for the International Church World Service from 1971 to 1974/5, Smith traveled throughout the Democratic Republic of the Congo, acquiring works primarily from other missionaries, but also from runners and the Kinshasa markets. Among other works, the 1981 exhibition African Tribal Art from the Museum's Collection showcased highlights from the Smith collection, including a sensitively rendered kaolin-encrusted Lega maskette, a large grouping of Yaka n-kisyan khanda masks, and a ceremonial Chokwe seat with scenes of masquerades and noble life (Fig. 8).
While Doyle's collection of work from the Democratic Republic of Congo had been referred to as “curios” when it arrived at the museum in the late 1940s, Smith's gift was referred to by then acting director Allen Rosenbaum as “African tribal arts,” reflecting a gradual shift in perspective about African cultural production at the Museum that had started in the 1950s (Rosenbaum 1979b: 1).14 While the increased use of the term “art” was positive, the addition of the word “tribal” was less so. “Tribe”—an inaccurate concept that not only mischaracterizes historical African social organizations, but also has racist and colonial implications—as used at Princeton's Art Museum during the 1970s and 1980s reflected both the lack of expertise in African arts at the institution and the wider usage of the term during this period (see Keim 2008). This shift towards “tribal” was reflected not only in the 1981 exhibition title and in internal museum discussions, but also in local publications, which spoke in generalities about the “geometric complexities, inherent in African art” and emphasized the role of “craftsmen” in the creation of “functional art” which influenced European modernists like Klee, Braque, and Picasso (Schwartz 1981: 8b). Certainly, the use of “tribal” at Princeton was not unique to that institution during this period, but rather reflected a greater moment in the museum field in which both “primitive art” and “tribal art” were still commonly used to describe African arts, even as a growing discomfort with the inappropriateness and inaccuracy of the term was becoming clear in both popular and scholarly forums.15
While African objects gained prominence at the Art Museum during the 1970s, where they were exhibited and described as “art,” it must be remembered that at the same time, African works were also part of the ethnological collections at the Museum of Natural History just across campus. Social science courses—rather than art history—benefited from these collections. While not a focal point of the Department of Art and Archaeology's curriculum, the Art Museum's African collection—particularly works from Congo—enriched teaching in the anthropology department. Professor Hildred Geertz, best known for her work in Bali and Morocco, incorporated Kuba textiles, Pende masks, and other work into her course “Art, Society, and Culture,” emphasizing the difference between so-called aesthetic and utilitarian objects (Bunnell 1976: 2). With these dual realms of exhibition and study, African objects at Princeton were simultaneously art and artifact during the 1970s.
A PERMANENT PLACE FOR AFRICA IN THE ART MUSEUM
Prior to 1989, portions of the African collections were displayed in the “courtyard” gallery (the present-day Marquand-Mather gallery) or alongside works from other collection areas in New Acquisitions exhibitions.16 The courtyard space also hosted events featuring African works, such as Black History Month collaborations with the then-Third World Center, although a permanent home for the collection was still wanting (Rosenbaum 1989: 2).17 By the 1980s, during the tenure of director Allen Rosenbaum (1980–1998), it had become near mantra among generations of directors to thank donors with a note that they hoped to exhibit their gifts in a new, dedicated space for the African collection.18
As the decade closed, at long last the hoped-for gallery of African art became a reality, as the museum renovated its lower-level galleries and added the Mitchell/Giurgola-designed Mitchell Wolfson Jr., Class of 1963 Wing. For the first time in its history, the African arts collection received a small, permanent home in the museum. Opened to the public on March 24, 1990, the lower level African gallery included large recessed wall cases along with space for free-standing cases (Princeton Weekly Bulletin 1990: 4). Now the focus of systematic attention from the Museum, the collection also benefited from the interventions of several specialists over the next three decades. It gained a strong advocate and a renewed aesthetic focus with the 1992 arrival of independent scholar Holly W. Ross, who has since served as both a guest and consulting curator for the collection and several exhibitions. As part of a 1991 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, art historian Dominique Malaquais came to Princeton as a lecturer in African arts during the 1997–1998 academic year, focusing two courses and a series of publications in the museum's Record on the collection.19
As in earlier decades, the 1990s saw the African collection transformed yet again by alumni generosity. The 1998 bequest of long-time museum supporter John B. Elliott, Class of 1951, totaled some 250 works primarily from central and western Africa, to date the largest gift in this collecting area. Elliott's gift included the Museum's first works from southern Africa, a series of objects meant for daily use including a suite of diversely formed wooden headrests made by Tsonga and Nguni carvers. A marvel of technical skill, a double-headrest with dangling teardrop-shaped snuff containers (isigqiki) joined by a smooth wooden chain is among the highlights (Fig. 9). This, and over 40 other objects from what was then the Elliott loan at Princeton, had comprised half the checklist of Objects of Use, a 1987–1988 National Museum of African Art exhibition. Rounding out the gift was an impressive array of Akan goldweights and royal regalia, including a nineteenth-century rawhide gun bearer's cap adorned with carved swords and rifles (Fig. 10), complementing earlier Akan acquisitions of the late twentieth century, including a glimmering akrafokᵓcnmu pectoral badge (Fig. 11). A permanent case of Akan regalia was created with these and other works, now a perennial favorite among educators, students, and docents, as well as generations of elementary school visitors.
RENEWED COMMITMENT IN THE 2000S
The 2000s marked the beginning of two decades of renewed commitment to African arts in both the museum and in the Department of Art and Archaeology, whose teaching projects retained influence on the museum's collecting and exhibiting practices. For the first time in its history, African and diaspora arts were taught in the Department on a permanent basis following the 2008 appointment of Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu. His ongoing engagement with the museum started soon after with his cocuration (with Holly W. Ross) of Life Objects: Rites of Passage in African Art, a 2009–2010 loan show of works from the Art Museum, the National Museum of African Art, and private collections. Meant to give the students in his freshman seminar “Art and Lifecycle in Africa” direct access to art objects, it was the first special exhibition of African arts at Princeton in nearly three decades.20 The exhibition considered how art manifests the intersection of faith and ritual during specific moments in the lifecycle in a variety of African cultures. Several more special exhibitions followed quickly, including 2014's Kongo Across the Waters, an examination of cultural and artistic exchange between Kongo, Europe, and the United States, and 2016's Surfaces Seen and Unseen: African Art at Princeton, a collection and loan show that examined the cultural and aesthetic significance of ritual accumulations.21 Each has presented new opportunities for teaching and gallery programming. Since 2010, Juliana Ochs Dweck, Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement, has been a key champion of the African arts collection, both taking an active role in permanent collection and special exhibition activities and prioritizing student interaction and research with the collection. A second Mellon Foundation grant allowed this author to come to Princeton as the Collections Research Specialist for African Arts in 2017, where I undertook the first collection-wide survey and standardization project, among other academic and curatorial tasks (see Windmuller-Luna 2018 for a summary). The grant also permitted provenance research and a series of subject area specialists to consult on distinct portions of the collection.
As the exhibition program grew in the 2000s, so too did the permanent collection, guided by the first-ever collection plan, which focused on acquiring masterpieces with prime teaching potential. No longer bound by the early twentieth century canon of sculpture, the scope of African arts at Princeton has grown in both continental coverage and in variety of media. At the same time, strengths in traditional Nigerian arts—such as a spiral-coiffed Efut head crest (Fig. 12)—were deepened through strategic purchases, including an elaborately beaded Yorùbá cap and an imposing Igbo ikenga shrine figure with a towering openwork superstructure reminiscent of a Mgbedike mask (Fig. 13). Textiles and garments—previously represented in the collection almost solely by Kuba embroideries and a trio of kente wrappers—have been diversified by the additions of two Yorùbá works (a sumptuous embroidered agbádá and a heavily beaded tunic) and a delicately woven Mbuun women's skirt field-collected by Belgian colonial doctor Émile Lejeune before 1912 (Fig. 14). Perhaps most impressive—and visually commanding—is a recent gift of a Mande hunter's shirt and cap, laden with animal skulls, mirrors, and leather-wrapped amulets (Fig. 15).
Since 2015, the collection has been further transformed by an important suite of gifts, promised gifts, and acquisitions from the Holly and David Ross Collection, whose quality has greatly enhanced the holdings in western and central African art. Among these works are a twentieth-century flywhisk made for a local or foreign market in the style of royal beadwork from the reign of Bamum Sultan Ibrahim Njoya (r. 1886/1887–1933), a shining Kota mbulu ngulu reliquary guardian figure, and a pendant-laden beaded Kuba yet belt. Exceptional among these many objects are three works: a divination implement bowl carved by Áreògún (Fig. 16), a sensitively carved Kongo nkisi power figure with intact empowered areas in its head and abdomen (Fig. 17), and an enshrouded kafigeledjo (Fig. 18). Recent bequests by former Art Museum curator Gillett Griffin have added historical depth to the collection, including an eighteenth century Ethiopian hand cross and a Djenné equestrian bronze, complementing his earlier gift of an elaborately coiffed seventeenth-century nsodie memorial head (Fig. 19).
A selection of works from the now-defunct Natural History Museum were transferred to the Art Museum in 2017, including a ca. 1880–1890 figurative racing canoe prow (tangue) from Cameroon, said to have belonged to one “King Balaba.” Collected in Batanga (former German West Africa) in 1902 by the Reverend R.H. Nassau, the elaborate polychromed prow—adorned with animals, humans, and a masterfully carved wooden chain—was accompanied by Nassau's full record of its allegorical significance.22 Measuring nearly six feet long, it once dominated the central gallery of Guyot Hall. This impressive and unusual example of polychrome Cameroonian carving is now undergoing conservation treatment.
Given the exceptional growth of the collection in the 2000s, the permanent collection gallery expanded in 2015 to the present total of 540 square feet. New cases provided additional space for recent acquisitions, as well as for a series of themed gallery rotations curated by museum staff, guest specialists, and graduate students (Fig. 20). While keeping function and historic context in mind, exhibition design strategies have become increasingly aestheticized and in line with display practices across the Museum. No longer are African arts put on view alongside plants and accompanied by the thrumming of unidentified drums, as they were in the 1970s. While its dedicated gallery flourishes, the African collection is increasingly in dialogue with the rest of the museum's holdings. Changing the Conversation: African Interventions (2018), curated by this author, aimed to broaden discussions about Africa's place in global art history. Bringing together pairings and trios of works by African and European artists in the museum's galleries of medieval art and European paintings, it rejected the Africa-Europe binary and instead prompted intercultural conversations about the history of art and its markets, the intersection of art and identity, and shared connections of faith (Fig. 21).
As it was nearly 140 years ago, object-centered teaching remains central to the Princeton University Art Museum. A cornerstone of education in the Department of Art and Archaeology, the museum continues to enhance courses campus wide. The last five years have seen an expanded use of the African arts collection by faculty in departments as wide-ranging as Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Linguistics, English, and History, exposing a broader spectrum of students to these works than might typically enroll in art history courses. While nothing matches the experience of visiting a museum and viewing art in person, the Museum acknowledges its responsibility as custodians of African arts to make the collection available to those on the continent and in its diasporas. Collections Research Initiatives sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have both enhanced internal records and the museum website, allowing the full African collection to be published online in 2017–2018 (http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/674). Digital projects including new online “Collection Themes” (in-depth finding aids), illustrated essays, and a forthcoming collaborative project to digitize, transcribe, and translate the PUAM Ethiopian manuscript will continue to introduce new audiences to the collection—particularly those unable to visit Princeton—and to showcase works of art that cannot be shown given current space limitations.
EXPANDED VIEWPOINTS: MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ART
While all “traditional” African works were in fact modern in their own right, responding to contemporary contexts, scholars and curators have distinguished them from “modern and contemporary” works created in a studio or gallery context starting in the twentieth century. Princeton's African collection includes a small number of works by such artists, including a drawing of a couple sketched by Simon Okeke, two fantastical stone beasts carved by Bernard Matemera, and a sinuous terracotta vessel shaped by Magdalene Odundo.
Complementing these works, as well as the tradition-based objects at the core of the African arts collection, the departments of Modern and Contemporary Art, Photography, and Prints and Drawings have made significant acquisitions and commissions of works by African and diaspora artists over the last decades, including prints by William Kentridge (Fig. 22) and photographs by Seydou Keïta (Fig. 23). Watercolor collages by Wangechi Mutu (Fig. 24) depict distended female forms bent by joyous ecstasy or contorted by violence, Mutu's women are built from her own brushstrokes and images culled from ethnographic, fashion, and scientific publications. Drawing as much from the image of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman—the Khoikhoi woman enslaved for performance in nineteenth-century Europe as the “Hottenttot Venus”— as she does from the Neolithic stone Venus of Willendorf, Mutu considers how the bodies of women and people of color have been simultaneously revered and exploited. Engaging with issues of gender identity, history, politics, and race on a global scale, these artists have widened the definition of what contemporary art is at Princeton, breaking past the post-1945 definition that has privileged American and European artists.
African and African diaspora artists have also enlivened the campus through both commissions and participation in museum programs open to both campus and community members. In 2009, the University commissioned Nigerian-American artist Odili Donald Odita to make a new site-specific public art piece to adorn the walls of Butler College, an undergraduate residence. Stretching its vibrantly colored painted diagonals up stairwells and across walls, Up and Away (Fig. 25) transforms bare white walls into a dynamic echo of student energy and ambitions. In celebration of El Anatsui's appointment as the 2014–2015 Sarah Lee Elson, Class of 1984, International Artist-in-Residence, 2014's Another Place was purchased for the collection (Fig. 26).
Globally focused, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Mitra Abbaspour has made several noteworthy recent acquisitions, including a Uche Okeke painting of Adam and Eve hiding their nudity in a vividly colored tropical flower garden (Fig. 27), and Yinka Shonibare MBE's diptych sculpture Nelson's Jacket and Fanny's Dress (Fig. 28). Its two vitrines encapsulate headless mannequins wearing British men's and women's period garments tailored from colorful patterned “Dutch wax” fabric, the globally influenced textile and signifier of “Africanness” that has become Shonibare's trademark visual leitmotif. Named for Lord Horatio Nelson and his estranged wife Frances “Fanny” Nelson, the work considers the intertwined nature of a colonial empire's rise and fall: Although victorious at 1805's Battle of Trafalgar, which affirmed Britain's naval and imperial power, Nelson ultimately died there. With these acquisitions, the Princeton University Art Museum now has considerable strengths in both the historic and contemporary arts of Nigeria and its diasporas.
In early 2018, University President Christopher L. Eisgruber indicated the high priority Princeton places on the rebuilding of the Art Museum (Eisgruber 2018). Later that year, Sir David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates (design architect) with Cooper Robertson (executive architect) was selected to create the new museum building. The planning process is underway, and the aim is for the Museum to reopen with expanded spaces for teaching, storage, conservation, and special exhibitions, as well as what will undoubtedly be enlarged spaces for the arts of Africa. From its humble beginnings with just one work some eight decades ago, African arts at the Princeton University Art Museum have grown to become an integral part of this institution. With each year, the collection expands in geographic and temporal depth, showcasing the diversity of African creativity.
Thank you to T. Barton Thurber, Juliana Ochs Dweck, Jeffrey Evans, Emile Askey, Cathryn Goodwin, Michael Jacobs, Michael Padgett, Betsy Rosasco, Molly McGuire, Sarah M. Brown, Virginia Pifko, Calvin Brown, and Holly W. Ross at the Princeton University Art Museum for assisting with and supporting the creation of this article.
Founded in 1746, the College of New Jersey became Princeton University in 1896.
The “African” or “Negro” race ranked third in his taxonomy of the supposed races of man (Guyot c1873: 114–16).
“Robert Hamill Nassau Coll. - List of 4 Boxes Sent in 1903.” In 1965, Nassau's daughter donated additional objects from Cameroon—including a sculpture of a woman and several “fetishes”—to Princeton, along with her father's papers (Guyot Hall Checklist 1965).
William Cowper Prime (Class of 1843) and General George McClellan prepared the original curriculum of art, which had a museum at its center. On this, Prime (journalist and founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and McClellan (Union army general) wrote “The foundation of any system of education in Historic Art must obviously be in object teaching. A museum of art objects is so necessary to the system that without it we are of [the] opinion it would be of small utility to introduce the proposed department. Courses of lectures, while conveying some instruction, would be of little practical benefit without objects to be seen and studied in connection with the instruction” (Prime and McClellan 1882: 7).
Egyptian works—primarily ushabtiu, pottery, and other small objects—were part of the Trumbell-Prime Collection, one of the Museum's first major acquisitions (Michael Padgett, personal communication, May 4, 2018).
The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University's Firestone Library holds additional Ethiopian works, including approximately 180 codices and over 500 healing scrolls. The collection is one of the largest in the United States, as well as outside of Ethiopia.
A fuller description of the Doyle collection can be found in Brett-Smith 1983. The results of my 2017 collection assessment suggest that Joyce Doyle used “Baluba” (Luba), “Batshok” (Chokwe), and “Bakuba” (Kuba) as catchall terms when cataloging works for the museum, and that works previously classified as such were in fact made by other peoples.
Thank you to Patricia Darish for this 2018 observation about the Doyle collection.
DeWald (1953: 1) later described the objects from the Doyle gift as “art.”
The Ethiopian manuscript was included in the 1951, 1952, 1953, and 1954 Easter Exhibitions; the 1952–53, 1953–54, 1954–55, and 1956–57 Christmas Exhibitions; and a 1953 tribute exhibition to Mather (Exhibition Ledger - Art Museum Exhibitions 1947–1963,” n.d.).
To what degree they engaged with the collection at the Art Museum remains a subject for further inquiry (Slotznick 1968: 1).
Brad Simpson of NMAFA kindly shared this letter.
Rosenbaum dropped the “tribal” qualifier in his correspondence for a few years after 1981, though it reappeared in his letters later in the decade and into the 1990s. It remained in intermittent use in correspondence between other donors and directors well into the 2000s.
See, for example, the New York Times 1981 coverage of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, which describes the new wing, department, and the art itself as primitive both with and without quotes (Glueck 1981).
New Acquisitions October 15, 1985-Jan. 12, 1986 (Exhibition Ledger - Art Museum Exhibitions July 1985-,” n.d.; Rosenbaum 1988: 1). Thank you to Betsy J. Rosasco, Research Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, for additional details about the “courtyard” gallery.
The archive does not detail their theme or content, though it suggests that the courtyard installation in general was inspired by a request from the Third World Center.
“Let me repeat again that we are most happy to have the collection and hope that it will not be too far in the future before it can have its own space in a new museum” (DeWald 1953: 1). “The African material, which we continue to exhibit in the entrance court, continues to stimulate interest and we look forward to more appropriate and permanent space for African art when we build the new wing, God willing” (Rosenbaum 1984: 1–2).
A summary of Malaquais’ work on African arts at Princeton, as well as that of invited lecturers and students is contained in Malaquais 1999.
In the intervening decades, select works from the African collection were only featured in pan-Museum special exhibitions like 1997's In Celebration: Works of Art from the Collections of Princeton Alumni and Friends of the Art Museum.
Kongo Across the Waters was organized by the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville, and the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium. At Princeton, supplementary interpretive material was developed by the Princeton University Art Museum.
Thank you to Jonathan Fine, Curator, Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, for his insight into the greater historical context of tangue, and 2017 opinion of this work.