A Matter of Taste:
The African Collection at the Allen Memorial Art Museum

Stern Gallery
Through June 2, 2002

Baga People, Guinea - Yoke Mask, 19th-20th century, wood and brass tacks.

Exhibition description:

A Matter of Taste: The African Collection at the Allen Memorial Art Museum features traditional African objects from the museum's permanent collection. The exhibition, curated by AMAM Director Dr. Sharon F. Patton, addresses Westerner's changing perceptions about objects from Africa, and how those perceptions determined the character of the AMAM's collection.

The AMAM's collection, dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, contains rare, old and pedigree (works originally owned by recognized collectors in the field) traditional art forms that have strong aesthetic appeal. It was established primarily through gifts from collectors who, over the past century, looked upon these objects as curiosities, exotica, artifact, craft and art. The collection began in 1904 with the Charles F. Olney gift of a carved elephant's tusk from the Loango Coast (Central Africa). When the museum opened to the public in 1917, it remained the only example of African art until 1934, when William Thompson (OC 1886) bequeathed five textile samples and fragments including one "hand-woven blanket with banding from West Africa, made of tree fiber."

Between 1955 to 1959 the AMAM established a modest but noteworthy collection of African art. Most of these were used in ritual or sacred performances. The collection contains seven masterpieces, all from West Africa: a Sapi ivory saltcellar, a Baga wood statue, Pende and Wree mixed-media masks, and an Edo cast-brass hip ornament. Since 1960 the AMAM has acquired mixed media works and items that would have been overlooked as art forty years ago: a Yoruba beaded pendant, two Yoruba textile ensembles, a Yoruba iron staff and beaded sheath, and a rare Yoruba torso mask. Within the past two years Dr. Patton has focused upon the art of the Yoruba people (Nigeria and Republic of Benin) in developing the museum's African art collection. Yoruba art is very popular with American collectors and is important in studies about the African diaspora in the Americas.

A Matter of Taste addresses several topics including the values we assign to African cultural production, the primacy of the visual sense over cultural context, and how the displays of African art in museums alters our understanding of African visual culture and meaning. At the same time this show conforms to current display practices by art museums by presenting items as ethnography and art. Collecting and exhibiting the art of Africa reveals more about ourselves, especially the legacy of connoisseurship, than what it tells us about African artists and their communities. Theorist Jean Baudrillard noted that, "Here, indeed, lies the whole miracle of collecting. For it is invariably oneself that one collects."