For the past several weeks, I have been traveling around Georgia to look at museum exhibits associated with Africa Atlanta 2014, a citywide year-long series of events highlighting cultural and economic bonds among Africa, Europe and the Americas.
However, there are many spectacular African art exhibits to be seen, so I widened my perimeter and made the trek to Birmingham, Ala., to see the African art gallery at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
More accurately, my parents made the trek while I, being a college student with a merciful unfamiliarity with the early morning hours, napped in the back seat to recover from my early wake up time. Soon enough, we arrived in Birmingham and after a quick lunch, we were off to the museum.
The Birmingham Museum of Art, founded in 1951, absolutely dazzled me. Its three floors have been packed with an incredible 24,000 pieces of work spanning the globe and several centuries. No matter what kind of art you want to see be it contemporary, Renaissance, Dutch and Flemish, decorative, Native American, Asian, pre-Columbian, and of course, African– you can find it at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
After marveling at all of the other spectacular exhibits, I finally arrived at what I had come to see–the African art gallery. And I was fortunate to be able to tour the African art exhibit with its curator, Emily Hanna, who oversaw the extensive two year renovation of the space that was completed in April 2014, which made the gallery space far more accessible due to elements such as large maps, color photographs, and an interactive African proverbs activity for children.
Dr. Hanna’s expertise and obvious love for African art and this exhibit made my time in the gallery much more educational and enjoyable.
The African art space is divided into two parts.
The first contains a staggering array of about 60 pottery jars from all over Africa, and a large TV in one corner showing a video demonstrating the crafting of traditional African pottery.
Dr. Hanna surprised me by informing me that the multitude of jars on display constituted only a small portion of the 406 pieces of pottery owned by the museum.
The gallery space holds about 50- to-75 pieces, which allows for regular rotation, so you can visit the museum regularly and still experience something different. Plaques on the base of the display holding the jars note which African ethnic group made each jar. I found it fascinating how the pottery showed so many differences between the aesthetics of different African regions, while still displaying an underlying commonality.
Everything from different shapes, colors, number of handles, showed the variations and similarities between the different African areas.
My exploration continued in the main exhibition space (the second space) across the hall. I entered the large U shaped room and found myself surrounded by the rich colors and intricate details that identify the art of Africa. The bright colors and earthy tones were especially striking against the crisp green of the walls.
The exhibit is divided into four sections, each focusing on a different geographic region of Africa and their inhabitants: the Sahel and North Africa, East and Southern Africa, Central Africa, the Coastal West.
It ends with a flat screen TV that gives visitors a glimpse into modern Africa, and a section with an African proverbs activity for children that encouraged them to look for the stories and pieces of wisdom embedded in much of the art. The beginning of each section is marked by a map showing which parts of Africa are within each region, and a large color photograph from the area, most of which were taken by Dr. Hanna during her travels in Africa.
The sheer volume and variety of items on display is astounding. Everywhere I looked there were masks, clothes, ceremonial costumes, sculptures, carvings, and so much more.
While talking to Dr. Hanna, I learned even more about how critically important it is to understand the culture that a work of art comes from so that I could understand the art itself. Some of the features that seemed bizarre to me made sense when Dr. Hanna put them in cultural context.
For example, the horn-like spires protruding from the top of the heads of the carved wooden figures did not represent evil, as they often do in Western artwork, but rather drew emphasis to the top of the head, which many African cultures believed was the most sacred part of the body. The large heads on the figures reflected the belief that the head is the most important part of the body, so depicting someone with a large head spoke highly of them.
Similarly, a figure of a person with large eyes represented someone who was observing the world around them and looking for God, an important task in this African tradition.
I also learned that in many African tribes, each person knowing and fulfilling their role, whether it was the role of the chief, a hunter, or a mother, was considered to be of paramount importance. Many of the pieces on display are pieces that show someone’s role, like a ceremonial tunic made of porcupine quills, or celebrate someone for having fulfilled their role, like a carving of a grandmother.
The African art exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Arts is phenomenal, and assisted me further to understand Africa. I feel that this function, helping visitors experience Africa is a tremendously important one.
As Dr. Hanna pointed out, “most people will not have the opportunity to visit Africa in person. The African gallery at our museum may be the closest many people get to experiencing the brilliant artistic and cultural heritage of the continent.
This matters because Africa Atlanta’s goal is to reinvent bonds between Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The only way these bonds can form and last is if people across the country want them to.
Unfortunately, for many Americans, the idea of a relationship with Africa is frightening, because as Dr. Hanna put it “most people learn about Africa from the news, and a lot of the news is negative.”
Museum exhibits such as this one help to dispel the nervousness many people regard Africa with by exposing them to its rich culture and heritage.
I think that the most important part of Africa Atlanta 2014 is that it wants to have an impact beyond Atlanta, one that stretches across the country, the continent even; to make people everywhere want to be connected to Africa. The Birmingham Museum of Art African art collection is a stellar example of the kind of museum exhibit that will help accomplish this lofty goal.
Anna is currently interning at the Atlanta History Center as the public programs intern. She enjoys learning about how history museums operate and being involved in planning and executing the museums different events. She is also working with Global Atlanta by visiting Southeast United States museums and writing commentaries of the different exhibits.