DMA Insight

African Art at the DMA: A Brief History

The Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) has long championed the inclusion of African art in the discourse of the world’s art. Before acquiring its first African object in 1969, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (DMFA, as the Museum was known then) hosted and organized a number of exhibitions that introduced the public to this non-Western visual expression. Among these exhibitions were African, Oceanic and Pacific Primitive Artifacts (1954), The Sculpture of Negro Africa (1961), and The Arts of Man: A Selection of World Art from Ancient to Modern Times (1962). The Sculpture of Negro Africa included a diverse selection of sculptures from twenty-seven ethnic groups that were made of ivory, forged iron, cast copper alloy (bronze), terracotta, and wood between the 16th and 20th centuries.

As this exhibition toured the West Coast and its Texas venues of Dallas and San Antonio, the Museum was organizing The Arts of Man, which featured more than eight hundred objects from the world’s major civilizations. The twenty carved wood masks and figures, gold and copper alloy (bronze) castings, and carved ivory sculptures of ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa included in the exhibition were borrowed from the Museum of Primitive Art, the Heeramaneck Collection, the Carlebach Gallery of New York City, and Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Marcus of Dallas.

The works of art selected for The Arts of Man exhibition reinforced a fact established in The Sculpture of Negro Africa—significant works of African art existed before the late 19th or early 20th century, when most extant examples were made, and in materials other than wood. A reporter reviewing the exhibition for the Dallas Times Herald noted, “some of the societies we think of as primitive or aboriginal produced art of great technical skill and highly sophisticated design.”[1] He must have had in mind a casting that in the catalog is identified as a 16th-century statue of a Benin “king” from Nigeria. The Arts of Man, undoubtedly the most ambitious exhibition the Museum had undertaken up to that point, was the brainchild of Mrs. Eugene (Margaret) McDermott, president of the Dallas Art Association from 1962 to 1964.[2] Her ambitious idea came to fruition in that extraordinary exhibition, which was the Museum’s most significant accomplishment in its fifty-year history and garnered national attention. It would also expand popular notions about “art.”

In 1966, Eugene and Margaret McDermott met Clark and Frances Stillman, connoisseurs of African art who had amassed one of the most outstanding private collections of Congo art in the world. When the Stillmans began downsizing their possessions, the McDermotts offered to purchase their collection of African sculptures, which had been assembled over a period of almost forty years. The offer was accepted, and the McDermotts acquired the collection, but not to keep. Instead, they donated a large portion of it (224 objects) to the Museum in 1969.

The collection, presented to the public in 1969, was named the Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture to honor the previous owners and to reflect the geographic origin of the objects. This extraordinary gift was a watershed event for the Museum, as the Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture was “esteemed all over the world and . . . its final museum resting place has long been a matter of excited competition and interest.”[3] With the acquisition of the Stillman Collection, the Museum now numbered among the institutions with significant collections of African art.

The Museum's African art collection reached another milestone in 1974 when its holdings grew to include the important and well-known collection of Gustave and Franyo Schindler of New York City. Presided over by the then director Harry S. Parker III, the acquisition was made possible by the Eugene McDermott Foundation in honor of Eugene McDermott, who had died in 1973.

Named The Gustave and Franyo Schindler Collection of African Sculpture, the assemblage of fifty works extended the stylistic and geographical reach of the Dallas holdings with objects from West Africa (Mali, Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso], Guinea, Liberia, the Ivory Coast [Côte d'Ivoire], Ghana, and Nigeria). The Museum's Central African holdings were augmented by objects from Gabon and Congo (Brazzaville) as well as Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). In contrast to most of the small-scale objects and focus on figurative sculpture in the Stillman Collection, the Schindler Collection offered large-scale statuary and masks. The acquisition of the Schindler Collection established the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts as the leading repository of African art in the Southwest.

Although growing, the DMA's African art collection essentially still consisted of sculpture. This situation changed in 1984 when Carol Robbins, then curator of textiles, acquired four woven raffia cloths from Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) with funds from The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc. and an anonymous donor. In addition to providing two-dimensional art forms, the textiles provided much needed examples of women's art in the collection. In 1985, the estate of Robert Plant Armstrong-a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, an avid art collector, and the author of many articles and books on African art-donated a Teke mantle from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then Zaire. By 1989 the collection of African objects amounted to 350 and was destined to continue growing in depth and quality.

The 1990s began with an extraordinary gift of approximately one thousand loose and strung African trade beads from the Dozier Foundation. The Museum became the repository of one of the largest public collections of such objects. In addition to displaying a wide array of colors, textures, and shapes, trade beads reflect Africa’s contact with the outside world (Asia and Europe). Beads adorned both sculpture and human beings. In some societies, they signified an affiliation with a particular religious practice, but because of their value as imported objects, they generally indicated individual or group prestige and prosperity. The Otis and Velma Davis Dozier Fund established in 1988 also enabled the Museum to purchase, among other objects, a classic Ndebele woman’s beaded cape from South Africa in 1991.

In 1991, the Museum acquired 258 Coptic Christian crosses. Ranging in size from a few inches to over two feet tall, the crosses made of carved wood and cast metal alloys date from about the 16th to the 20th centuries. This important collection was assembled between 1964 and 1967 in Ethiopia by the professors Hebe and Kenneth Redden. Because Ethiopia did not have a law governing the exportation of cultural property at the time, it was legal to collect cultural objects. At the behest of Emperor Haile Selassie, Kenneth Redden—a member of a legal team from the U.S. Department of State that established the first law school in Ethiopia—drafted Ethiopia’s first Antiquities Protection Law. Redden was allowed to keep the crosses he had collected as a token of the emperor’s appreciation and with the understanding that the crosses would “ultimately be placed in an educational setting, where scholars and the public could learn from them about Ethiopian culture.”[4] Originally donated to St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, the collection of crosses was permanently moved to the Dallas Museum of Art so that it could be accessible to a broader public.

In 1992, the Museum hired the art historian and African art specialist Christopher D. Roy as an adjunct curator to research and organize a temporary exhibition of the African art collection. In this role, he advised Jay Gates, the Museum’s director, to acquire types of African art (such as royal art or textiles) especially from West African cultures to create a balanced collection. Broadening the collection in this way would also demonstrate that African societies are not monolithic but differ in terms of sociopolitical and religious structures and associated art forms.[5] Roy’s advice was duly acted upon, and examples of prestige headwear and a helmet mask were purchased.

In 1994, Ramona Austin, an art historian and veteran art museum curator, was hired to fill the new fulltime position as curator of African art, which was endowed as The Margaret McDermott Curator of African Art in 1999.[6] During her tenure, Austin added over one hundred objects to the collection and oversaw the reinstallation of the collection into its designated space on the third floor of the Museum. The completely refurbished galleries, opened with great fanfare in 1996, showcased approximately 125 objects from the collection arranged according to geographic style regions. Although African masks are the most popular African art forms, the collection could boast but a few, and during her tenure Austin acquired several.

In 2003 John R. Lane, The Eugene McDermott Director (1999–2008), and Bonnie Pitman, the Deputy Director, hired Dr. Roslyn Walker to join the DMA staff. An art historian, seasoned art museum curator, and former director of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, she joined the Museum as Senior Curator, the Arts of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific and The Margaret McDermott Curator of African Art.

With “highest quality” always a criterion, there has been a conscious effort to obtain works of art that reveal the diversity of forms, styles, techniques, and materials found in African art and to represent more of the major art-producing peoples, especially from West Africa. Since 2004 several important works of art from Nigeria have helped to close the disparity between the West African and Central African holdings. By 2008 the collection housed fifty-one masks and three complete masquerade costumes. Textiles now have a greater presence in the African art collection with the addition of classic, and sometimes rare, examples from throughout the continent. The collection includes cloths from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in northern Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon in West Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa.

Since 1969, the Dallas Museum of Art’s collection of African art has grown from one that focused primarily on sculpture to one that reflects the wide range of the visual arts of Africa’s ancient and traditional cultures. Ancient works like the pre-Christian era Sokoto bust exquisitely demonstrate Africa’s long history of civilization and creativity. The Museum’s collection reflects the diversity of Africa’s societies that range from highly stratified, as exemplified by the royal arts of Yoruba and Benin kingdoms, to those of the village-based Igbo and Lega. Yet, there is room to grow and gaps to fill. For example, there are few works made of gold and iron in the collection; East African and women’s art are critically underrepresented. By continuing to build on the foundation of the Schindler and Stillman Collections, the African art collection and associated programs will contribute to the realization of the Museum’s mission as adopted in 2002: The Dallas Museum of Art collects, preserves, presents, and interprets works of art from diverse cultures and many centuries, including that of our own time. We champion the power of art, embracing our responsibility to engage and educate our community, to contribute to cultural knowledge, and to advance creative endeavor.

Notes

[1] “The Arts of Man,” Dallas Times Herald Sunday Magazine, October 7, 1962, p. 13; Kosinski 2003: no. 94

[2] The Dallas Art Association was established in 1903 to support the visual arts with a goal to create a permanent institution, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. A brief history of the Dallas Museum of Art is found on the museum’s website, www.DallasMuseumofArt.org.

[3] “A Prestigious Collection,” _Dallas Morning News, _November 1, 1969, p. 2

[4] Louise Cantwell to Anne Bromberg, personal communication, August 14, 1992

[5] Christopher D. Roy to Jay Gates, personal communication, September 12, 1993

[6] The Margaret McDermott Curator of African Art Endowment Fund was established by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 1995 with additional gifts by Irvin Levy, Caren and Vin Prothro, and Deedie Rose. In 1999 Mrs. Eugene McDermott made an additional gift to name the endowment. Income is used to support the salary of a curator of African art to supervise the African collection.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 13-27.

Related Multimedia

Part of Late Night: Celebrate Africa! Art, Music, Dance, Food, Culture; re: collecting African art ; Kumasii Drum and Dance, side 2; Variations on a Theme: Three "Olumeye" by Olowe of Ise, September 18, 2005– January 15, 2006; with John Buxton, Phillip Collins, Gerald Smith, John Pemberton and Roslyn Walker
lecture celebrating the publication of Walker's book The Arts of Africa; Walker is Senior Curator of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific and The Margaret McDermott Curator of African Art

Web Resources

  • Smart History
    Learn more about the reception of African art in the West.

  • Smart History
    Read an essay about Western appreciation of African art.