The National Museum of African Art was the first museum I’ve ever visited devoted solely to African Art. It was a quiet, rainy morning when I arrived and I gladly opened my bag for inspection by the staff. Although I did not require a wheelchair or assistance, both are available as well as large-print exhibition materials and interpreters with advance notice. You can also request a hands-on tour of gallery objects with advance notice. Out of the hundreds of incredible works, here are the 5 pieces you must see.
Contact by Nandipha Mntambo of Swaziland
I loved this piece because it is the torso of a woman, soft and curvy, draped in cowhide, cow hooves, resin, and polyester mesh. Although you cannot touch the piece, nor should you, it looks like her dress is softly pillowing with ruffles at her feet. As you get closer and gaze with more intent, you can see that the ruffles are actually hooves. I enjoyed the contrast of the hardened hooves, meant to carry away an animal or allow it to stand, yet this figure was weighted and immobilized with them instead. The cowhide looked like silk far away, but you could see the individual rough hairs as you stood closer.
Mntambo states her art was “inspired by a ship’s figurehead that comes towards us but is always just beyond reach.” That is apropos, as the piece hangs high on the wall, unreachable but open to your gaze. I wonder if Contact wanted to be admired by being placed so high, or stand in judgment as a goddess, or bestow blessings from on high, or simply observe humanity as we fail and succeed.
I loved the fact that this piece was gigantic and yet made of intricate, intertwined found objects and mixed media. I kept stepping closer to see if I could identify what the “scales” were made of. My eyes roamed over the serpent and darted from color to color, still curious about its connected panels. Hazoumé is famous for using jerry cans (plastic containers used to haul various liquids) in his art and to create this beast of a serpent.
The Rainbow Serpent is so large you’ll have to walk to the other side of the room to see it in its entirety and you’ll still miss its top. It is immense, and it’s designed to be immense. I stared at the head devouring the tail and actually felt nauseous. I don’t do snakes and cannot discern the “good” ones from the “bad” ones and I had never been so close to a snake head. It seemed to be living, waiting for my feet to falter and stumble so it could release its tail and lunge for me, adding me to its tapestry of scales. You’d think this plastic snake would be harmless but it is not.
Ouroboros, a snake swallowing its tail, is traditionally associated with fertility (phallic and womb symbology) and infinity. Hazoumé’s use of jerry cans “seeks to draw attention to the consequences of oil extraction, the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, and the continued abuses found in unequal global trade relations.” Consider the mythology of snakes: tempted Eve, Medusa’s hair, Irish exit, and the house of Slytherin. Snakes have a bad rep and the creation of one using plastic (derived from petroleum) to make a statement regarding the oil industry (which is contributing to the death of the earth and all of its inhabitants) as an eternal circle of death is genius.
This costume is created with raffia, paper, dye and is tall because it fits an entire person! I was initially drawn to it because of its unique look and size. Then I read that it’s a performance garb used “during initiation rites, funerals, ceremonies associated with leadership, and other important gatherings..” Can you imagine what it looks like when someone is in it? There’s a video available to sit and enjoy and it looks like a whirling dervish.
I love that the ensemble is gender-neutral and can be worn and performed by anyone. This brings equity into every facet of the community and conveys all are welcome, all are equal, all are free.
Small Iriabo (Clapping Girl) by Sokari Douglas Camp of Buguma, Rivers State, Nigeria
I was confused after reading the description placard because, clearly, this piece was NOT moving. Perched on a pedestal, this sculpture of a woman is made of steel, wood, paint, and a hidden motor. Her arms are poised to clap and feet, firmly planted, extended from a red skirt. I asked a staff member about it and he confirmed that she does move and to return in a few hours to see it. So I did.
I stood in front of the Small Iriabo, not knowing exactly what to expect, and was stunned when she suddenly and loudly started clapping. Slightly rocking back and forth, the clapping lasted for over a minute, becoming the only sound in the room and inviting guests to come and observe. Later, I mentioned to the staff that it was impressive but I probably would have crapped my pants if I’d been near it and NOT known what was about to happen. Imagine being in a museum, where a whisper is sometimes too loud, when a stationary sculpture suddenly and noisily comes to life! This female figure disrupted the entire museum with the power of her hands. Is this a metaphor for women’s power throughout the world?
The final thing you must see are signs acknowledging the removal of art. Several bronze sculptures originating from the Republic of Benin have been removed from public viewing. Much of Benin’s art looted by British colonizers in 1897 ended up all over the world, including museums. There has been a concerted effort by Nigeria to have its art returned to its rightful and ancestral home. The Smithsonian Institution has agreed and is in the process of returning sculptures.
I applaud the museum’s decision and hope other collectors, both public and private, will return all stolen art found and known in their archives. I also appreciate the signage and learning about the worldwide struggle to return art stolen by Europeans.
The National Museum of African Art is located at 950 Independence Ave SW and is open 10:00 a.m. until 530 p.m. daily. Have you visited the museum? What piece of art would you recommend seeing?