The papier-mache sculpture, all 10 feet tall, has curves that speak of movement, full hips and embracing arms. It also has eyes, several sets of eyes and faces, that signal fun and seem to be showing new directions. The figure in black, red, gold and blue is probably male but maybe not.
This whimsical and evocative work by Mickael Bethe-Selassie has a permanent home in Washington at the National Museum of African Art, right under the traffic of the busiest museum row in the world. But few people discover it.
Finding the finest art from Africa and introducing the work to new audiences has been a mission of the African Art Museum since its founding in 1964. Attention to artists from the post-World War II generation, such as the Ethiopian-born Selassie, has been a focus at the 40-year-old museum since it became part of the Smithsonian Institution 25 years ago today. Yet few know that the treasures of the past have been joined by this significant collection of modern work. The museum has evolved into a strong blend. The traditional, of course, is expected: the late-15th to early-16th century male head carved by the Edo people of the Benin Kingdom in Nigeria, or the mask of a woman with braids by her forehead carved by the Chokwe people of the Congo in the early 20th century. But it is also the unexpected: a smooth vase without any adornments or carvings done in 1994 by Magdalene Anyango N. Odundo of Kenya, the environmental canvas of South Africa's Georgia Papageorge, who draws natural rifts in the style of topography maps to symbolize political upheaval, and an animated film by William Kentridge of South Africa illustrating the exploitation of the African worker today. This inclusion shows a new phase of the museum's interest.
"The museum has spoken volumes about the formal recognition of Africans to the United States and the recognition of the contributions of African art to world art," says Sharon F. Patton, an art historian and scholar of West African and African American art who 17 months ago became the museum director.
But some, especially Patton, are asking whether that is enough.
Born amid the controversy and politics of the civil rights and Black Power movements of the '60s and '70s, the museum is one of only two in the United States devoted solely to the collection of both traditional and contemporary African art. Its permanent holdings include 8,000 objects and 300,000 photographs, from Life photographer Eliot Elisofon, a globe-trotting photojournalist who covered the major events and people of the mid-20th century, and Constance Stuart Larrabee, who covered World War II and South African life. The Museum for African Art in New York is much smaller.
The number of museums, serious collectors and published scholars concentrating on African art is relatively small. Warren M. Robbins, the founding director of the Washington museum, and Nancy Nooter, a donor and longtime board member, examined the field for their "African Art in American Collections Survey 1989," and found about 1,000 significant private collections and 250 museum collections.
The museum retains its importance as a catalyst for debates within the art world. Lowery Stokes Sims, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, says the museum is "a laboratory for discussion" of how individuality flourishes in the African art context and the origins of modern art. "There is still a need to resurrect African art from being mere signals to Picasso," says Sims.
Still the African Art Museum is dwarfed by its sister Smithsonian museums in the size of its collections, in attendance, and in visibility. First of all, it is in an underground building between Independence Avenue SW and the Smithsonian Castle that goes down three stories, connected to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a museum of Asian art. In 2003 African Art drew 170,235 visitors, out of 24 million for the total Smithsonian. Of the art museums, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden had 660,000 visitors; the Freer Gallery of Art 315,000; the Renwick Gallery 168,000 and the Sackler 161,500.
Ned Rifkin, undersecretary of art at the Smithsonian who oversees the African Art museum, says the institution is on a firm footing but needs to plan its future in a world of fast-changing public tastes. "It is well positioned to do that. I'm pleased with the foundation," he says. But it is time to stretch, even if the economy is putting the brakes on large expansions. "I have nothing but praise for what has happened up to now. Now it is time for a quantum leap."
Looking back, the museum has approached its role as a collector and exhibitor in three distinct ways.
The first phase was the 15 years under Warren Robbins that preceded the museum's joining the Smithsonian's stable. In that period, when the museum was founded in a historic row of houses on Capitol Hill, its main focus was traditional African art, as well as developing a strong following as an education facility and meeting place for those who were interested in racial politics in America. Its existence was a validation of some of the tenets of the Black Power and black arts movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, one of which demanded acknowledgment that Africa had a highly developed culture that enriched those movements in America.
The cultural heritage of black people remained a strong theme throughout the years. But over time the context changed from simply looking at African art as ethnographic material to seeing traditional objects as exquisite craftsmanship that stood up and survived the centuries as the best art.
In 1983, Sylvia H. Williams became the second director and shifted the emphasis to a more scholarly approach. She "took the art historian perspective," says Patton. The collecting expanded to regions beyond the areas south of the Sahara, including Arab North Africa and Egypt, and added contemporary art. "She bought work at high costs. And it turns out that [the artworks] are very rare. She took that risk."
Roslyn A. Walker, the director from 1997 to 2002, formalized that somewhat controversial approach by paying respect to the past but dedicating a gallery to contemporary art and hiring a contemporary art curator. "Anytime you want something new you are going to have static," said Walker, now the senior curator at the Dallas Museum of Art. And competition. Walker recalls going to an auction in Paris and having to spend more than her budgeted $25,000 for an ancient Yoruba mask.
All three phases, including 130 special exhibitions in 25 years, have made the museum a solid force in the international art world. Today the museum has 400 contemporary objects in the permanent collection, with 40 of them on display in a show called "Insights." The contemporary art is drawn from family, political and spiritual themes. The topics can be love, poverty, disenfranchisement, politics and exile. Sokari Douglas Camp is a sculptor from Nigeria and Great Britain. One of her sculptures, "Church Ede," created in 1985, is a full-size bed, made of twists of steel. Standing at the sides are figures of women waving cloth fragments over the empty springs. Powered by electric motors, it shakes four times a day to show the spirit of her father, gasping his last breath or leaving the Earth. It's an image that connects to a variety of emotions, such as grief and loss.
So now the museum is the go-to place for contemporary African art in America, both in its galleries and in its research facilities. With the infusion of the Smithsonian money, the library grew from about 3,000 volumes to 30,000. Congress earmarked $440,000 for the acquisition of books over three years. The book collection covers visual arts, history, anthropology, religion, travel and even cookbooks.
"We try to pay attention to works published in Africa. It gives an African point of view, and those materials are not as widely available," says Janet Stanley, who has been the librarian for 25 years.
The museum, like most arts operations, is struggling to increase private contributions. Its public funding is flat, drawing $4.5 million for the current fiscal year out of the Smithsonian government appropriation. The contemporary-art curator job has been vacant for a year. The acquisitions budget has shrunk, now standing at $127,000. Over the past 10 years, acquisitions had received $130,000 annually, but its own success has increased competition in the marketplace. To add to the collection, the museum wants to set up an endowment.
Although there are few quarrels with the quality of the displays, some veterans, such as Robbins, want the museum to have more of a social-hall feeling -- a destination for groups and fraternal organizations, such as the National Urban League. Robbins says missing those opportunities makes it isolated and elitist. "I am happy to know that something I started grew, and is guaranteed through perpetuity. But I first wanted it to be a public museum and it got to be elitist. And the only way to increase attendance is through activities," says Robbins. The museum sponsors about 10 special events a year, and Patton argues forcefully for raising money to make it more of a gathering place.
Today, its supporters believe, there is still a need to be instructional, to go behind the art and give some understanding of today's Africa, and what current events mean to African Americans and all black people in the diaspora.
Patton wants the museum to balance all those roles, and doesn't think the time has passed for promoting Africa or using the prestige of a museum to counter and explain the often horrible news from Africa, from wars to genocide to regime-induced mass starvations. "We still have an education role: to be an antidote to news from Africa. Almost every time Africa is mentioned it is about HIV and AIDS. We have to think about Africa differently," she says. Art is one conduit, she argues. "It is a retrievable and redeemable culture. Art has a way of providing a narrative for issues and provides a place of solace."
She looks around her basement conference room -- itself a retreat from the busy tour groups above her head and the hyperactive world outside. "There has been that tension between showing African art as art and as a document through which you can talk about Africa in the past and present," says Patton, and she pledges to do both.
The modern museum-goer wants an environment that almost crackles. To respond to that, Patton wants to build multidimensional environments. In "Playful Things," a current show about masquerades that is aimed at children, signs on the floor urge people to dance. Some costumes are brought out of their glass cases to stand alone on platforms, almost like an elegant boutique. "I wanted it to have enough art, enough imagery, so it plays off the imagination of children," says Patton.
To give the museum a vital currency, Patton is designing an exhibition schedule that will bring in shows from other American museums, such as the Museum of New Orleans and the Houston Art Gallery, as well as Europe and Africa. That should keep the local and tourist visitors engaged, says Patton, as she reaches for "more of a mix of mediums and curatorial perspectives."
As the anniversary events start, Patton is doing physically what her three predecessors did culturally with their art mix -- tear down the walls. By fall, the gallery devoted to contemporary art will cover 4,500 square feet, an increase of almost 1,000 square feet. When it opens in November, the anniversary show "Treasures" -- a collection of masterpieces of ancient and modern times -- will replace three separate galleries and total 7,000 square feet.
Patton's task is to make sure people see more. More and more pieces are being moved to the center of the floor. "When you see them from all sides," says Patton. "That is discovery." And hopefully a rediscovery of the treasures below the ground.