Redesigned African Art Galleries To Open at MIA

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Minneapolis, May 15, 2013–Charting a fresh course for the presentation of African art in an American encyclopedic museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) will open its renovated African art galleries on November 10. Designed by nationally acclaimed architecture firm VJAA, the new galleries were shaped in part by community input. Works from across the African continent and areas of the African Diaspora, dating from 2500 BCE in Ancient Egypt through present day, will be integrated into the 4,800-square-foot space.

New interpretative resources and display techniques will allow works in the MIA’s African art collection to be classified by their own logic and aesthetics, rather than according to traditional Western systems based on chronology, geography, or medium. An open layout will encourage visitors to create their own pathways through the galleries, promoting discoveries of cross-cultural dialogues between objects and allowing works to be seen as dynamic, multifaceted components of cross-continental developments. Robust technological resources will place works in the context of a diasporic history, where influence and impact stretch beyond single countries and codified styles.

“The depth and breadth of the MIA’s African art collection pushed us to find new ways to display it that would create stimulating experiences for our visitors,” said Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, PhD, curator of African art. “We knew that in order to give our visitors the best possible experience with our collection, we needed to break out of traditional gallery design models so that they could see these objects within the full context of the diaspora they resulted from and contributed to. With the help of our community, VJAA, and incredible technological resources, we’ve been able to do just that, and I think MIA audiences will find that they will be more able than ever to appreciate the significance of this collection, both aesthetically and historically.”

Technology will play a critical role in providing improved context for the objects on view. A large interactive map will be one of the focal points in the galleries. The map will allow visitors to explore and trace the rich history of the continent and the objects they see. Multiple map overlays will show the origins of the objects, historical moments on the continent, and geographic terrain. Several objects will have interactive wall labels featuring videos and suggesting connections with other works that are on view. For example, an interactive label accompanying a set of objects from the royal court of Benin from the 17th and 18th centuries will allow visitors to explore the meaning of the objects’ decorative iconography and will feature a video of Dr. Sylvester Ogbechie, a Nigerian-born scholar of African art, discussing their cultural patrimony.

“At the MIA, we constantly challenge conventions in order to give our visitors fresh ways to engage with the museum and its collections,” said Kaywin Feldman, MIA director and president. “These galleries exemplify our commitment to doing that by showing the innovative approaches that result from years of community-based research, work with insightful partners like VJAA, and, above all, a willingness to experiment. With the new galleries, we’ll be a leader in showing how African art can both play a key part of an encyclopedic museum and be presented in its own, unique way. We hope these galleries will draw in visitors who have not spent time with our African art collection in the past and will be an impetus for new visitors to come explore the MIA in the future.”

The MIA’s Department of Arts of Africa and the Americas comprises more than 4,000 objects from antiquity to the present. The collection has grown significantly since the department was founded more than 30 years ago and now includes masterworks of sculpture, ceramics, metalwork, and textiles, reflecting the diversity of African regions and cultures. In the new spaces, thematic groupings of objects pulled from throughout time and across the continent and areas of diaspora, which have previously been grouped separately, will show how artistic elements and styles have had broad influences on people and places.

Objects will be displayed in the following groupings:

Designing Form and Function: Objects in this section all display striking shapes or colors that illustrate the playful ingenuity of African artists. Some of these look outright “modernist,” like the red half-circles on a Tanzanian pot, the embroidered patterns on a Congolese skirt, or the overall construction of a Congolese blade that influenced Henri Matisse 70 years ago. A vessel by Kenyan artist Magdalene Odundo exemplifies the inspiration contemporary artists draw from traditional African design.

Commanding Authority: Beginning several thousands of yearsago in Ancient Egypt and up to today’s post-colonial period, leaders in Africa have commissioned art as a way of displaying their power and confirming their command. To this end, elephants, leopards, horses, and other animals are used in artwork throughout the continent as symbols of authority. Leaders have also used portraiture in many forms as another way of immortalizing their authority, as exemplified in a false door from an Ancient Egyptian tomb and an approximately 750-year-old female royal terra-cotta head from Ife, Nigeria.

Invoking the Invisible: Relations between this world and the Otherworld are a prevalent theme in African art and have been shaped and maintained through the use of art. This section draws from funeral practices, divination, initiatory associations, and spirit cults to illustrate invocations of the invisible. Additionally, objects including the Nigerian Mami Wata sculpture from the 1940s show the world-encompassing nature of some of Africa’s religions.

Performing Dance and Music: While the notions of performance and movement are central to the entire reinstallation of African art at the MIA, this section especially highlights them by focusing on masks and musical instruments. A wooden object from the Dogon shows how a mask can also be a sculpture, and a voluminous Yoruba textile mask, whose layers of panels swirl during dances, underscores the kinetic aspect of this art. All dance is accompanied by music, which will be represented in this section by Ancient Egyptian ivory clappers, a 20th-century figurative drum from Ghana, and more.

Expressing Identity: This section examines wearable objects used—as they are across the globe—to convey information about age, social standing, marital status, and identity. Examples include Moroccan silver jewelry that indicates a woman’s marital status and a Sudanese male corset made of beads whose colors indicate the owner’s age. Masks used in initiation rituals that help mark the passage from childhood to adulthood and a Sierra Leonean helmet mask—one of the few types worn exclusively by women—will also be included. Photography will help show how some identities—a newly acquired urban one, for example—are expressed through modern mediums.

Connecting with World Religions: The African continent never existed in isolation: throughout history, its cultures have imported and exported religious ideas and art forms from, and to, other parts of the world. Ancient Egypt influenced the Mediterranean civilizations, and enslaved Africans brought some of their traditions to the New World, where they changed over the years. Similarly, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have inspired African artists. A number of artworks will highlight these intercultural exchanges.


Symposium: Mobility, Change & Exchange in African Art

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Minneapolis Institute of Art

This one-day symposium celebrates the opening of the reinstallation of the museum’s African art galleries with lectures by leaders in a range of disciplines related to the new galleries, including:

• “ The ‘In-Betweenness’ of Things: Materializing Movement and Cultural Interaction in the Sierra Leonean Object Diaspora” by Paul Basu, MSc, PhD, Reader in Material Culture and Museum Studies at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology

• “ The Art of Conversion in the Early Modern Kingdom of Kongo” by Cécile Fromont, PhD, Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago

• “ The Arts of Post-Millennial Haiti” by Donald J. Cosentino, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Culture and Performance at UCLA

Opening-Day Public CelebrationSunday, November 10, 2013



Anne-Marie Wagener, (612) 870-3280;

Tammy Pleshek, (612) 870-3171;


Alison Buchbinder, (212) 671-5165;

Ariel Hudes, (212) 671-5169;

Back to the MIA Press Room


The Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), home to one of the finest encyclopedic art collections in the country, houses more than 80,000 works of art representing 5,000 years of world history. Highlights of the permanent collection include European masterworks by Rembrandt, Poussin, and van Gogh; modern and contemporary painting and sculpture by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Stella, and Close; as well as internationally significant collections of prints and drawings, decorative arts, Modernist design, photographs, textiles, and Asian, African, and Native American art. General admission is always free. Some special exhibitions have a nominal admission fee. Museum hours: Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Monday closed. For more information, call (612) 870-3000 or visit

Minneapolis Institute of Art 2400 Third Avenue South Minneapolis, MN 55404 Phone (612) 870-3000 Fax (612) 870-3253