|1st article - African Art at the Denver Art Museum
by JONATHAN BATKIN - May 1979
2nd article - New acquisitions at the Denver Art Museum
Nancy J. Blomberg - 1998
|African Art at the Denver Art Museum
by JONATHAN BATKIN
African Arts May 1979
|The Native Arts department at the Denver Art Museum is now called "The Douglas Society"
Named in honor of Frederic Huntington Douglas, the museum’s curator of native arts from 1929 to 1956 and one of the first scholars to
present American Indian, Oceanic, and African objects as artistic achievements, the Douglas Society carries on his efforts in education
and in the continual development of the native arts collection. Programs include lectures, visits with contemporary artists, trips to regional
museums, and tours of private collections. Although the principal purpose of the Douglas Society is education, fund-raising activities
support acquisitions and an extensive library.
Website for the Douglas Society - www.douglassociety.org
With the new expansion at the Denver Art Museum set to open in the fall of 2006, the African art collection will have dedicated space to be
able to finally set up a permanent installation for display.
Most images you can click on to see full size
Dance mask, Tikar, Cameroon
wood, rattan, trade cloth, paint - 49cm
gift of Peter Natan
Door - Yoruba, Nigeria
Master of Ikere ca. 1949
wood, traces of red pigment 147cm
Fang Ngil society mask, Gabon
wood, raffia, white pigment 55cm
gift from Fred Riebling of Denver in August 1942, collected in the 1890s by Dr. Albert L.
Pipe bowl, Bale (?), Cameroon
from the collection of Frederick Wolff, Vienna
Fetish figure, Bena Lulua, Zaire
collected by Leo Frobenius on his expedition to the Kasai district of the Congo in 1906
wood, red pigment 20.5cm
Plaque, Benin City, Nigeria
Epa mask, Yoruba Nigeria,
Osamuko of Osi village ca 1920
wood, red pigment 112cm
gift of Harrison Shaffer
from the collection of Frederick Wolff, Vienna -collected ca. 1880
Makonde mask, Tanzania
wood, hair, pigment, beeswax 21.5cm
from the collection of Frederick Wolff, Vienna - collected ca. 1860, has recently been examined by Kenneth Campbell of
the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, who believes that it is one of the oldest examples extant
gift from Fred Riebling of Denver in August 1942,
collected in the 1890s by Dr. Albert L. Bennett
NOMOLI SHERBRO (?), SIERRA LEONE
gift of Mr. and Mrs. Emmett Heitler of Denver
I wish to thank those who offered advice and suggestions for this article: Kate Kent and Dr. Otto Bach for historical information, Lloyd Rule
of the Denver Art Museum for valuable advice on photographic matters, and Marlene Chambers of the museum's publications department
for advice on the script. - Johnathan Batkin
1. Douglas is best known for his two series of publications, the Indian Leaflet series and Material Culture Notes. Republished numerous
times by the museum, these guides to mate¬rial and technique are distributed internationally. With Rene d'Harnoncourt, general manager
of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, and later director of the Museum of Modern Art, Douglas organized two landmark shows, first at the San
Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition, and, immediately following, at the Museum of Modern Art (see Douglas and d'Harnoncourt
1941). Douglas's untimely death from cancer in 1956 was a shock to his hundreds of friends and acquaintances worldwide. His immense,
impeccably kept files of correspondence were a valuable source in tracing the history of the Native Arts Department.
2. Douglas took an interest in Oceanic art in the 1930s, and after his friends Ralph Linton, Paul Wingert, and Rene d'Hamoncourt organized
the Museum of Modern Art show of 1946, Oceania became one of his primary interests. The collection he assembled, nearly complete by
1950, is remarkably comprehensive and of superb quality, including several exceptional old Polynesian and Melanesian pieces. Collectors
of Oceanic art in the Denver area have, in the past few years, added several fine pieces to the collection. Paul Wingert borrowed some of
our better pieces for America's second big show of Oceanic art in 1953 at San Francisco's M. H. de Young Memorial Museum.
3. Melville J. Herskovits, Backgrounds of African Art (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1945.)
4. In his report, "Ethnographical Notes on the Fang", Dr. Bennett makes no mention of the use of masks in dance or ritual in conjunction
with the Ngil society, or of the use of reliquary guardians.
5. The Bali attribution is questionable but is based upon that of a nearly identical bowl illustrated in Frobenius (1933:598, pi. 136).
6. This figure was originally in the Pitt-Rivers collection and is illustrated in Pitt-Rivers (1900, pi. 8, nos. 43, 44). Also on loan from Dr. Martin
are a bronze bell, a bronze tortoise shell, and a bronze "aegis," illustrated, respectively, as plate 12, no. 73; plate 20, no. 118; and plate 36,
no. 276. Dr. Martin has also lent a beautiful eighteenth-century Ashanti cast leopard with an antelope in its mouth, apparently the top of a
kudito; and a cast bronze vessel in the form of a cock, attributed to Benin but possibly from Dahomey.
7. This mask was actually the gift of Mr. Shaffer's son, Paul. Harrison Shaffer worked as a government official in Nigeria and collected the
pieces in the field. Herbert Cole, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, provided us with the information on tnmaii ceremonial in
northeast Igboland (personal correspondence: May 12, 1978).
Bennett, Albert L. 1899. "Ethnographical Notes on the Fang Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute n.s. 2, 1:66-98.
Douglas, Frederic H. 1930-1940. Indian Leaflet Series. Denver : Denver Art Museum.
Douglas, Frederic H. 1937-1953. Material Culture Notes. Denver: Denver Art Museum.
Douglas, Frederic H. 1935-1956. Personal correspondence.
Douglas, Frederic H. and Rene d'Harnoncourt. 1941. Indian
Art of the United States. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Frobenius, Leo. 1933. Kitlturgeschichte Afrikas. Zurich:Phaidon-Verlag.
Joseph, Marietta B. 1974. "Dance Masks of the Tikar," African Arts 7,2.
Kent, Kate. 1940-1945. Personal correspondence.
Pitt-Rivers, A. H. Lane-Fox. 1900. Antique Works of Art from Benin. London: published privately.
Wells, Louis T., Jr. 1977. "The Harley Masks of Northeast Liberia," African Arts 10, 2.
New acquisitions at the Denver Art Museum
Nancy J. Blomberg (Denver Art Museum)
African Arts 1998
Long known for its premier collection of American Indian art, the Denver Art Museum did not begin a significant acquisition program for
African art until the early 1940s. Initiated under the direction of curator Frederic Huntington Douglas and director Otto Karl Bach, the
program aimed to develop a limited but representative collection as an educational resource for the Rocky Mountain region.
Initially there were numerous exchanges with major European institutions with extensive and early collections of African art—among them
the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Royal Scottish Museum, and the University of Ghent. Douglas's close professional association with both the
University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania and the Peabody Museum at Harvard also led to exchanges permitting the acquisition
of objects collected in the field by Leo Frobenius and other early visitors to Africa. Additionally, noted gallery owners Julius Carlebach and
Ralph Altman assisted Douglas in his search for quality material. During the 1970s and 1980s, collecting activity increased through
selected purchases and generous donations by several Denver patrons, including Peter Natan and Dorothy and Emmett Heitler.
Over the past fifty years the collection has grown to a modest 800 items broadly representative of the major artistic traditions and peoples
found throughout the continent, with the greatest concentration in the strong sculpture-producing areas of west and central Africa. Among
the pieces singled out by prominent Africanist scholars such as William Fagg and Roy Sieber are a rare Fang Ngil society mask collected
in Gabon in the 1890s, a Benin bronze plaque from the 1897 British Punitive Expedition, a fine Tikar headdress, and an exceptional
Makonde mask. Yoruba art is especially well represented by many outstanding sculptures, including an Epa mask carved by Osamuko of
Osi and a palace door made by the Master of Ikere in the early part of this century. The museum recently adopted a dual strategy of
broadening the general scope of the collection and, at the same time, concentrating on key areas such as sculpture by prominent Yoruba
artists and workshops.
Although it was begun relatively late by most museum standards, the collection has attained modest but significant stature. By
documenting the rich artistic expressions of the diverse peoples of Africa, it expands and enriches the Denver Art Museum's offerings on
non-European art traditions.
Nancy J. Blomberg
|Male dance mask of the Bedu society, by Sirikye, ca. 1960. Nafana, Cote d'lvoire.
Wood, pigment, metal; 2.5m (96.8"). 1997.43. Native Arts Acquisition Fund.
Throughout the Nafana month of the Bedu moon, male/female masked pairs appear at night, modeling ideal
behavior and satirizing inappropriate actions. The masquerade serves to purify and unify the community,
promoting social order and fertility and warding off disease. Small crescent-moon cutouts and perimeter zigzag
carving in the disk portion are characteristic of the unique style of Sirikye, a prolific and highly regarded
twentieth-century Muslim artist.
|Bed, mid-20th century. Senufo, Cote d'lvoire.
Wood, length 2.4m (8'). 1996.342.
Gift of Helen Fusscas and Earnest Bonner.
Senufo and Tiv beds, each one hewn from a single hardwood log, were used for ceremonial purposes
as well as for sleeping. The Tiv refer to the beds as kpande, meaning plank furniture, while the Senufo
in the Kufulo region call them kpaala. This bed exhibits a rich patina, a raised headrest with circular
and U-shaped carving at the base, and incised notches in groups of five extending down the sides.
|Veranda post, by Olowe of Ise, ca. late 1920s. Yoruba; Akure, Nigeria.
Wood, 1.75m (69"). 1996.260.
Gift of Valerie Franklin and Collector's Choice 18.
This veranda post was created for the house of Chief Elefoshan in the town of Akure by
Olowe of Ise, the most highly regarded Yoruba carver of the twentieth century. Male and
female caryatid figures with intertwined arms support a warrior wearing a breastplate and
holding a spear; he is astride a significantly smaller mount. The composition and
hierarchical scale of this outstanding sculpture provide insight into Yoruba ideas about
|Egungun mask and costume. Egba Yoruba; Abeokuta, Nigeria.
Wood, pigment, fabric; 1.5m (61"). 1997.154.
Gift of Michael and Patricia Coronel and the Native Arts Acquisition Fund.
Families of the Egungun society honor their ancestors, specifically the ongoing presence and power of the deceased,
by sponsoring and performing annual and biennial masquerades. This mask is notable for its Janus aspect: a white
human face with vertical cheek marks is juxtaposed with a red human face with "hare" ears (visible behind the facing
head), a conical head projection, and horizontal cheek marks. Gelede societies west of Abeokuta consider the hare or
rabbit to be a nocturnal creature and therefore associated with witches.
|Twin figures, ibeji, by the Master of the Owu Shango Shrine. Yoruba, Nigeria.
Wood, beads; 28.5cm (11.3"). 1997.3.1, 1997.3.2.
Native Arts Acquisition Fund.
The Yoruba view twins as powerful and mischievous descendants of the thunder god
Shango. Upon the death of one or both of them, a diviner often recommends that ibeji
figures be carved in order to protect the living. The work of the Master of the Owu
Shango Shrine (ca. 1850-1925), one of the most prominent and skilled carvers among
the Yoruba, displays a unique consideration of space and form, notably in the
juxtaposition of rounded areas with flat planes.
|Jar, mid-20th century. Mali. Ceramic, 83.8cm (33"). 1996.341.
Gift of Helen Fusscas.
The scale, condition, and detailing of this household pot are impressive. Horizontal and
vertical stamped bands and raised circular elements embellish the surface. Detailing
found on African pottery often echoes scarification patterns or pat¬terns on art
depicting the human figure.
|Rand African Art
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