Installation view of Hand Held: Personal Arts from Africa at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Mitro Hood.
Installation view of Hand Held: Personal Arts from Africa at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Mitro Hood.

Exhibition reveals one theme of the African collection reinstallation

 “We cannot live without such beautiful things.” – A Guro carver, Côte d’Ivoire (1960)

 BALTIMORE, MD (August 22, 2011)—Hand Held: Personal Arts from Africa brings together more than 80 artworks from the BMA’s collection that skillfully merge artistry with utility. On view September 25, 2011–February 5, 2012, the exhibition includes a variety of seats, vessels, blankets, combs, hats, and other objects created for individuals and households in 21 African countries. Each of these artfully crafted pieces was repeatedly handled or worn by their owners, suggesting that beautiful objects are essential to life. The exhibition also celebrates a facet of the BMA’s rich and historic African art collection, which will be reinstalled as part of the BMA’s major renovation project.

Hand Held begins by focusing on individuality through objects that transcended their basic purpose to also proclaim the wearer’s personal style and identity. Often these artworks became so associated with their owners that they were retained by the family as heirlooms or as memorial objects. Highlights include dramatic and refined hats and combs, sculpturally crafted loom pulleys, and vibrant skirts and wrappers. There is also a selection of intricately carved and embellished staffs that proclaimed the ranks of royal officials and other leaders. The second half of the exhibition presents domestic objects that not only served but also beautified the household and its surroundings such as ceramic and fiber vessels that collected and safeguarded water, milk, and grains, or wood and brass containers that protected cosmetics and jewelry. Woven textiles and carved architectural elements offered comfort and protection while also adorning and delineating living spaces.

The exhibition is installed in galleries adjacent to the museum’s African collection, providing a more expansive view of the BMA’s remarkable holdings. The African countries represented by artworks in Hand Held are:  Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, and Zambia. Several works in the exhibition come from major recent acquisitions being shown for the first time. A selection of videos and photographs will show how the objects were created and used.

Hand Held: Personal Arts from Africa is curated by Nichole Bridges, Associate Curator for African Art.

Reinstallation of the African Collection
The exciting reinstallation of the BMA’s African collection will significantly enhance the visitor’s experience with the African artworks. Increased gallery space will allow for dramatically improved displays of African masks, textiles, and other objects in ways that better convey their original scale and context.  Objects will be organized thematically rather than geographically to show cross-cultural connections. The reinstallation will also include a designated space for special thematic displays so that visitors can look forward to seeing more of the collection each time they visit.

African Art at the BMA

One of the first African holdings in an American art museum, the BMA collection was inaugurated with its first gifts in 1947, the year after the museum organized a pioneering exhibition titled simply: An Exhibition of African Art.  The BMA’s historical participation at the vanguard for presenting African art set the stage for Alan and Janet Wurtzburgers’ generous gift of non-Western art in 1954.Today there are more than 2,100 artworks in the African collection, ranging from a pre-dynastic Egyptian ceramic beaker to a contemporary Nigerian bead painting.  The collection is particularly strong in West African art with masks, figures, stools, and other sculptural forms in wood, many with attachments of metal, fiber, and organic material. In addition, there are brass cast weights, ceramics, beadwork, ivory miniatures, jewelry, carved stone, and metal currency forms and weapons.  Many pieces are distinguished by their use in royal courts, performances, and religious contexts, and several are internationally known as the best of their type, such as D’mba, an unparalleled Baga female dance headdress from Guinea.

About the Baltimore Museum of Art

Founded in 1914, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) inspires people of all ages and backgrounds through exhibitions, programs, and collections that tell an expansive story of art—challenging long-held narratives and embracing new voices. Our outstanding collection of more than 97,000 objects spans many eras and cultures and includes the world’s largest public holding of works by Henri Matisse; one of the nation’s finest collections of prints, drawings, and photographs; and a rapidly growing number of works by contemporary artists of diverse backgrounds. The museum is also distinguished by a neoclassical building designed by American architect John Russell Pope and two beautifully landscaped gardens featuring an array of modern and contemporary sculpture. The BMA is located three miles north of the Inner Harbor, adjacent to the main campus of Johns Hopkins University, and has a community branch at Lexington Market. General admission is free so that everyone can enjoy the power of art.

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