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Denver Art Museum Exhibits: The Arts of Africa Collection

June 17, 2024 By CityPASS

The Denver Art Museum proudly hosts a rich and diverse collection known as the Arts of Africa Collection, showcasing artistic traditions and expressions from the African continent. This engaging exhibit invites you to explore the historical and cultural significance of African art through a carefully curated selection of pieces. The collection offers a profound insight into the artistic achievements and heritage of various African communities, making it a must-visit destination for art enthusiasts and cultural explorers.

Arts of Africa Collection 1.
© DAM Photography

Origins of the Arts of Africa Collection at Denver Art Museum

The Denver Art Museum (DAM) has long been celebrated for its commitment to preserving and presenting indigenous and global art forms. The origins of the Arts of Africa Collection are traced back to the museum's broader vision to enhance its Native Arts department, which initially focused predominantly on American Indian art.

In the mid-20th century, the museum broadened its scope under the stewardship of Frederic Huntington Douglas, an art historian and anthropologist renowned for his work with American Indian art. Douglas, who joined DAM in 1929, played a pivotal role in transforming the museum's collection strategy. His tenure at the museum was marked by innovative exhibitions and scholarly publications that enriched the museum's offerings and helped redefine American museology.

Douglas's interest in non-Western art was significantly shaped by his experiences during World War II, particularly his time in the South Pacific. This period ignited his interest in Oceanic arts and indirectly influenced his appreciation for African artistry. Douglas laid the groundwork for what would become the Arts of Africa Collection by integrating African and Oceanic arts into the museum's collection.

Following Douglas, the leadership baton was passed to Royal Hassrick and later Norman Feder, who continued to expand and diversify the museum's collections. Feder was instrumental in acquiring many African artworks, enhancing the museum's global perspective and representation of non-Western art forms.

Today, the Arts of Africa Collection at DAM is a testament to the museum's dynamic curation approach and ongoing commitment to celebrating diverse art forms. The collection honors the artistic traditions of the African continent and serves as a bridge connecting different cultures through the universal language of art.

Arts of Africa Collection 2.
© DAM Photography

Diversity and Range of African Art

The Arts of Africa Collection at DAM showcases an impressive diversity of artistic expressions and historical narratives. This collection, encompassing about 1,000 objects, offers a panoramic view of the continent's rich artistic landscape.

Geographical and Cultural Diversity of the Artworks

The collection spans a broad geographical range, featuring works from the 19th and 20th centuries and strongly focuses on West African art, particularly from the Yoruba people. However, it also includes significant pieces from other regions, ensuring a comprehensive representation of the continent's cultural wealth. This geographical and cultural diversity highlights various artistic traditions and the dynamic histories of the African peoples, showcasing everything from ritualistic sculptures to everyday utilitarian objects.

Types of Art Forms Represented in the Collection

The Arts of Africa Collection is distinguished by its various art forms, including sculpture, textiles, jewelry, painting, printmaking, and drawings. Materials used range widely from wood and metals to fibers, terra cotta, and mixed media, reflecting the rich resourcefulness and creativity of African artisans. This assortment illustrates the technical skills and aesthetic values unique to different regions and emphasizes the dynamic evolution of African art, connecting traditional practices with contemporary expressions and international influences.

Themes and Symbolism: Unveiling Hidden Meanings

The art collection is rich with themes and symbolism, offering a deeper understanding of the beliefs, societal roles, and spiritual practices that shape African communities. Each piece in the collection serves as a conduit for cultural stories, encoded in the materials, shapes, and patterns used by the artists. These artworks reflect the people's everyday experiences and spiritual lives and address broader themes such as power, transformation, and continuity, which resonate through the ages.

The Gallery's Transformation Over the Years

Over the decades, the gallery housing the Arts of Africa Collection at DAM has undergone significant transformations to better convey the narratives and essence of the artworks displayed. Initially focused more narrowly on traditional artifacts, the gallery has expanded its scope to include contemporary pieces, creating a dialogue between past and present. This evolution reflects a broader shift in museum practices toward a more inclusive and comprehensive portrayal of African art, emphasizing its historical depth and contemporary relevance.

Arts of Africa Collection 3.
© DAM Photography

Must-See Masterpieces

Among the must-see masterpieces in the art collection are several notable pieces that stand out for their craftsmanship and cultural significance:

  • "Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions" by Nigerian-born artist Moyo Ogundipe. This vibrant painting explores complex narratives through rich symbolism and color.
  • A carved stool from a Chokwe artist is both a piece of furniture and a symbol of status and community.
  • Hand-carved combs and masks that serve both practical and ceremonial purposes. They showcase the aesthetic and symbolic aspects of grooming and disguise in African cultures.
  • "Babalawo," a wood sculpture of an herbalist by Nigerian artist Lamidi Fakeye, reflects the revered position of traditional healers in African society.
  • Beaded panels and a decorative dagger, each embedded with social and spiritual meanings.
  • A vibrant and elaborate late 20th century Egungun masquerade outfit — used in ceremonies to connect with ancestral spirits and strengthen community bonds.

How the Extensive Collection Represents Modern African Society

The extensive Arts of Africa Collection at DAM offers a unique lens on modern African society by juxtaposing older works with contemporary art. This presentation highlights the continuity of cultural traditions and their transformation and adaptation in response to global influences. Contemporary pieces reflect the current social, political, and economic realities of African countries, providing commentary on issues such as identity, diaspora, and the impact of globalization. This dynamic collection showcases the resilience and creativity of African artists as they navigate and shape the modern world, making it an essential exploration for understanding the vibrant and evolving nature of African societies today.

Arts of Africa Collection 4.
© DAM Photography

Experience the Denver Art Scene and More With CityPASS® Tickets

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Header Image © DAM Photography

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