"In Kenya, people become walking works of art," said Warren Robbins, director of the Museum of African Art.
He was speaking of the museum's exhibit, opening today, called "The Useful Arts of Kenya." It features portable, utilitarian objects including large, bulbous milk and water jugs made of gourd or wood, long, cylindrical jugs with carrying straps, beaded jewelry, even a wall-hanging made of leather and cowrie shells.
"The Kenyan people are nomadic," said Robbins. "They are hunters and pastoral people. They don't have the tradition of art, as we think of it, in West Africa. But they adorn every item in their households."
Some of the household gourd jugs bear engraved designs of cattle and other decorative patterns.
Kenyan craftsman Peter Nzuki, who made some of the incised objects in the exhibit may come to the museum in December as an artist in residence, according to Robbins.
The approximately 300 objects -- ranging from jewelry to large, wooden memorial figures -- come mainly from Los Angeles collector Ernie Wolfe III and represent work of this century. The ancient traditions in Kenyan craftsmanship are now being revived by artists like Nzuki, Robbins said. "Where agriculture and calf-herding are still going on in Kenya, traditional people are still using these objects," he said.
But Robbins pointed to a leather cape covered with beads in a zigzag pattern. "The designs are related very much to what modern artists are doing," he said. "A modern artist could spend a whole career doing that."
The exhibit, which lasts through Jan. 10, is the first special exhibit since the Smithsonian Institution added the Museum of African Art last August to its stable of Mall museums.
The benefits of that alliance include 24-hour guard service and help from the Smithsonian's Exhibit Central installation service -- which the museum has not really needed for the Kenyan exhibit.
"We have our own staff to install the show," said Robbins. "But the Smithsonian is there to help if we need it. We're still in transition."
The museum is located at 318 A St. NE, in a historic townhouse (once the home of Frederick Douglass) among eight adjacent townhouses. The museum is open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from noon to 5 p.m.