1st article - African Art at the Denver Art Museum

2nd article - New acquisitions at the Denver Art Museum
Nancy J. Blomberg - 1998
African Art at the Denver Art Museum
African Arts May 1979

Frederic H. Douglas served as curator of the Denver Art Museum's internationally recognized collection of American Indian art from 1929
to 1956. Like Douglas, who became the country's leading pioneer in the study of American Indian art,(1) the museum itself was to set
influential precedents, challenging the traditional concepts of both ethnographic and art museums when it first exhibited Native American
material as art. Indeed, the very idea of an art museum with a separate department in this area was unique when the trustees appointed
the first curator in 1925.

Just prior to World War II, Douglas, for a short time the museum's director, established an additional curatorial position. The new post of
curator of Native Arts, which Douglas filled himself, was founded so that the museum might begin to collect and exhibit the traditional arts
of Africa and Oceania. From its inception, the department was meant only to round out the museum's already important interest in
ethnographic art. Over the years, as the museum expanded, it became unable to staff the two departments separately. At about the time
of Douglas's death in 1956, the Department of Indian Art and Native Arts became, simply, the Native Arts Department, which today
occupies more space than any other department in the new museum building at the edge of Denver's Civic Center.

Despite its relatively small size, the African collection is a very representative one, and among the approximately 500 pieces are some of
America's finest examples of African art. The collection has grown very slowly, as the interest in African art has always been weaker in the
Denver area than in many other parts of the country. Surprisingly, the interest in Oceanic art is quite high, as recent gifts to that collection
indicate, but no bequests or large gifts of African material have ever been received.(2) It has been through smaller gifts, exchanges, and
occasional purchases that the collection has attained its present status.

In 1945, while Douglas ran an army hospital in the New Hebrides, the acting curator of Native Arts, Kate Kent, organized the museum's
first exhibition of African art. It proved to be a major event for the department, signaling its commitment to the study of this area. At the
time of the exhibition, titled "Art of the African Negro," there were fewer than twenty African pieces in the museum's collection, of which
only two were selected for display. The remainder of the more than 240 works that appeared in the show were lent by sixteen museums
and private collectors. True to Douglas's tradition of extensive research into cultural traditions and life styles, Kent selected a
comprehensive group of artifacts, including wood and metal sculptures and examples of Africa's textile arts. Otto Karl Bach, the museum's
director from 1944 to 1974, expanded the scope and depth of the traditions represented with his own reproductions of North and South
African rock paintings. The largest single loan to the exhibition was made by Melville J. Herskovits, then chairman of the Department of
Anthropology at Northwestern University. His loan consisted entirely of Yoruba art that he had collected in Dahomey in the 1930s and
exhibited for the first time in Denver. To accompany the exhibition, Herskovits delivered a series of lectures at the museum, "Backgrounds
of African Art."(3) Well publicized at the time, the exhibition remains the single largest display of African art in the Rocky Mountain region,
and one of the largest in America.

The two pieces from the museum's collection that appeared in the show were a Fang Ngi society mask (
Fig. 2) and a Fang reliquary
guardian (
Fig. 11). Part of a gift from Fred Riebling of Denver in August 1942, they had been collected in the 1890s by Dr. Albert L.
Bennett, a physician from Denver who did some early ethnographic work among the Fang and had illustrated both objects in conjunction
with his report in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1899.(4) The "heart-shaped" face for which many Gabonese,
Congolese, and other traditions are known is described in the Ngi mask by two shallow concavities in an attenuated and abruptly
truncated form. The swollen, spherical forehead is common in Fang art. The mouth, which is frequently represented by pursed lips
projecting from the facial plane, is lacking but is implied by the very shape of the mask at its bottom, which is ever so slightly
outward-turned. Always considered a gem of the collection, the mask is a powerful piece especially cherished by Bach, whose interest in
African art dates from the mid-1930s. He has always been particularly interested in the influences of African art on early twentieth-century
European art, and it is little wonder that this mask inspired him to take a hand in the growth of the African holdings. Lacking an acquisition
fund and realizing that it was too late to assemble a great collection, he set the goal of gathering a representative sample of wide scope
that would serve largely educational purposes.

As soon as he returned from the Pacific, Douglas began to arrange for exchanges with American and European museums, to which he
offered duplicate American Indian material in return for examples of Oceanic art, his primary new interest, or African art, mostly at the
urging of Bach. These two smaller collections grew at a furious pace between 1946 and 1956, with hundreds of pieces coming into the
museum through exchange. For example, a group of eleven Poro masks of the Dan of northeastern Liberia, collected by Dr. George
Harley in the late 1930s and 1940s, were acquired from the Peabody Museum at Harvard in 1951. Exemplifying several of the major types
of Poro masks, they are quite well documented, which is typical of the masks that Harley collected (see Wells 1977). Another important
exchange, made with the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in 1955, included four Kota reliquary figures (inbidu-iigiilu),
a small bronze mask from Benin, and a Bena Lulua figurine originally collected by Leo Frobenius on his expedition to the Kasai district of
the Congo in 1906 (
Fig. 4). It was through the occasional purchase rather than exchange, however, that many of the museum's finest
pieces were acquired. Two dealers in particular aided the department considerably. Ralph Altman of Los Angeles, a close friend of
Douglas and later the first chief curator of the Museum and Laboratories of Ethnic Arts and Technology (now the Museum of Cultural
History) at UCLA, was instrumental in the growth of the African and Oceanic collections. So also was Julius Carlebach of New York, who
repeatedly offered excellent material. It was from Carlebach that the museum made its first purchases of African art in late 1948. Included
were a Chokwe Pwo mask and more than thirty examples of Kuba and other Congolese wood caning and embroidered raffia cloth. All of
these objects from the Congo had been collected by Frobenius in 1906. The most important part of the purchase was a group of eight
excellent old pieces from the collection of Frederick Wolff, Vienna. The most famous of these is the Bamileke beaded "elephant" mask,
originally collected ca. 1880 (
Fig. 8). An Ejagham (Ekoi) cap mask, 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 (
Fig. 10). Among the other Wolff pieces
are the rare Bali pottery pipe bowl (
Fig. 3), a Baule sculpture of a woman, and an animal-shaped bowl from Cameroon.(5)

In 1955, the museum purchased its plaque from Benin (
Fig. 5). One of several hundred such plaques surviving from the
seventeenth-century palace of the Oba of Benin, it was originally dubbed a fake by an expert because a heavy, solid encrustation of filth
obscured its surface. Bach enlisted the services of a chemist who, through a carefully controlled cleaning, exposed the patina typical of
these pieces. A small number "60" also appeared, presumably an identification mark from the British Admiralty sale. The figure
represented on the plaque holds in his right hand a rectangular object made of, or decorated with, leopard skin. The pose is very similar
to that of a rare Benin cast figure of a woman, on indefinite loan to the museum from Dr. Esmond Bradley Martin.(6)

Although William Fagg authenticated the Benin plaque during his visit to the museum in 1976, his attention was most taken by a superb
Makonde mask acquired through exchange with Carlebach in 1959 (
Fig. 9). The Makonde of Tanzania are recognized as the only people
in their geographic area to have produced masks and sculptures in a Congolese tradition. The museum's example is unusually sensitive
and naturalistic, and Fagg judged it one of the finest he had ever seen.

Fagg was also able to identify the carver of the museum's Yoruba door as the Master of Ikere, active from the turn of the century until
about 1914 (
Fig. 1). Purchased in 1973 through the Marion Hendrie Fund, the piece has been cut down slightly in size. Of its many fine
Yoruba pieces, the museum's only Epa mask, carved by Osamuko of Osi village, Kwara State, ca. 1920, has attracted the most attention
Fig. 6). Lamidi Fakeye, the well-known contemporary Yoruba artist, took an interest in it when he visited the museum in 1972 because
his father, Akobi-Ogun Fakeye, had been trained in the intricacies of traditional Yoruba carving by Osamuko.

Considering the difficulties attendant on its growth, the collection is surprisingly well rounded. Today it includes a wide variety of mask
types and sculptural forms from all corners of Africa, as well as a fair sample of ceramic and textile arts, metalwork, and musical
instruments. Much of its development has been by way of occasional gifts, several of which came in memory of Carlebach at the time of
his death in 1970. Those who have contributed to the collection form a list too long to include here, but among those whose generosity
has been most evident in the past few years are Mr. and Mrs. Emmett Heitler of Denver. Their many gifts include a large and impressive
Mumuye ancestor figure, a Baga anok, a beaded Bamileke throne, and a nomoli, probably Sherbro in origin (
Fig. 12). Harrison Shaffer
has given several fine Nigerian pieces, which he obtained in the field in the 1960s. Perhaps the most remarkable of these is a mmau mask
collected in a village just north of Nsukka in Igboland (
Fig. 7). From a group known generically as ikorodo or ekwe, the mask is a curious
blend of traditional design and European influence. It is surmounted by two figures, apparently a European in military dress and St.
Michael grasping a serpent.(7) Peter Natan of Denver has long been a supporter of the Native Arts Department. His gift in 1976 of a fine
Tikar dance headdress added yet another great rarity to the museum's collection (
cover). This particular type of Tikar mask is very
poorly documented, but judging from available literature, this piece seems to possess an unusually strong design. The alternating areas
of red and white and the sharp, exaggerated facial features, seemingly applied to a perfect cylinder, appear atypical, as does the rattan
inlay in and around the mask's coiffure.

Exhibitions of African art have appeared only sporadically at the museum during the past thirty years. Recently they have focused on the
arts of a particular area or the products of a specific craft, and have been rather small in size. The museum's current display of the African
arts collection is not considered a permanent installation. The limited space allows for the display of only 125 pieces, and several fine
objects remain in storage. The gallery was updated drastically by a group of graduate students from the University of Denver in the spring
of 1977. The ideas represented in the new exhibit, which will be carried over into a future permanent installation, follow those used in the
exhibition of the museum's American Indian arts collection. The intention is to show fewer pieces in a greater amount of space, and to
exhibit them clearly and plainly in an effort to avoid the over-dramatization that is all too common in displays of African art. Documentation
has been augmented in the hope that antiquated notions of Africa and African art will fade along with dated exhibition techniques.
A project to improve the conditions under which the African and Oceanic collections are stored and displayed has been under way for
several months. Its aim is not only to preserve these fragile objects but also to make them more accessible to those who wish to study
them or borrow them for exhibition.

The Denver Art Museum has always considered itself an educational institution. The Native Arts Department in particular, backed by its
own library of some 45,000 catalogued books and periodicals, has been a regional research center for nearly fifty years. It is one of our
greatest desires that the department's important, but little-known, holdings from Africa and Oceania become more widely recognized in the
years to come.


The article above was written in 1979 and I will be adding another article that was written in 1998 that talks about the museum's collection.
The Native Arts department at the Denver Art Museum is now called "The Douglas Society"

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 -

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
Figure 1
Door - Yoruba, Nigeria
Master of Ikere ca. 1949
wood, traces of red pigment 147cm
Figure 2
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.
Figure 3
Pipe bowl, Bale (?), Cameroon
terracotta 21.7cm
from the collection of Frederick Wolff, Vienna
Figure 4
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
Figure 5
Plaque, Benin City, Nigeria
bronze 51.5cm
Figure 6
Epa mask, Yoruba Nigeria,
Osamuko of Osi village ca 1920
wood, red pigment 112cm
Figure 7
gift of Harrison Shaffer
Figure 8
from the collection of Frederick Wolff, Vienna -collected ca. 1880
Figure 9
Makonde mask, Tanzania
wood, hair, pigment, beeswax 21.5cm
Figure 10
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
Figure 11
Reliquary guardian
Fang, Gabon
wood, pigment
gift from Fred Riebling of Denver in August 1942,
collected in the 1890s by Dr. Albert L. Bennett
Figure 12.
STONE, 34cm
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

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).

BATKIN, Bibliography
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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