Artists and Patrons in Traditional African Cultures

The Gary Schulze Collection

2003 - 2004

Miniature Leopard from Kingdom of Benin. medium: Ivory, copper. date: unknown. length: 5 inches

African Art has a secure place among the great art traditions. At first, the Western world recognized it through its influence on European avant-garde artists at the beginning of the 20th century. That influence initiated the advent of Modern Art, first by the breakthrough of Picasso but almost immediately by others. Exactly a century later, it is an anachronism to refer to African art as primitive. The cultural expressions from the continent of Africa are acclaimed in their own rights by scholars, collectors, museums, and the public alike their sophistication, vitality, and expressive effect have become widely recognized.

What the Western world first deemed as savage curios were, in their African context, objects imbued with power created through form, materials, color, and surface qualities. Now we have come to understand that African art is a vivid expression of African values and traditions and responds, as does all art, to influences and changing conditions. This art, from the religious, mythological, and historical to the decorative and functional are expressions from cities, towns, and villages where many of the traditions are alive, traditions that slowly evolve, reflecting changes in form and detail through shifting values, foreign influences, migrations, and new technology.

This exhibition of African art includes masks, figures, household and ritual objects, body adornment, ceremonial costumes, and textiles, from the Western Sudan, West Atlantic Coast, Central, East, and Southern Africa. Objects were selected for their geographical representation and aesthetic excellence. The exhibition displays the full range of ceremonial and practical objects produced on the African continent.

In seeing these sculptures, we are viewing only one aspect of the ritual or ceremony, divorced from the context that gave them cultural meaning but their power of imagination and qualities of form, surface, and craftsmanship still carry multi-dimensional values that affect us and to which we can relate. Moreover, we have included costumes in the collection, some for their consummate workmanship and beauty, others for their projection of power and magical properties. They too, are part of the larger expression of each African culture’s interaction between art and life (between the vital forces of gods, spirits, and ancestors).

African art is not ethnographic art but is Art. It is not craft (though it can display great craftsmanship) but it expresses a time a culture and an individual interpretation of that reality. If it is to be effective, it must adhere to communal traditions. It must encompass mythology, magic, religion, history, and local references. Yet it can express deep emotions and beauty through its volumes, shapes, lines, planes, proportions, details, surfaces, and internal relationships or architectonics. These qualities of art are understood and practiced by the master carvers but generally not discussed or written about in Africa. The art functions, not as wall decoration, but in shrines and masquerades for the life, survival, and continuing traditions of the community. It also functions as political art, for social criticism and prestige, often carrying status symbols of leadership and royalty.

The basis of African aesthetics can be fundamentally explained by one word. That word in many African languages means both beautiful and good. The beautiful/good is pleasing to the senses, virtuous, correct, useful, appropriate, and conforming to custom and expectations. It is a summation of the values of African art.

Pieces are arranged in the traditional geographical order, from the Western Sudan, West Atlantic Coast, Central Africa to East Africa and finally South Africa. Most of the major sculpture-producing areas are represented.

This collection contains objects representing more than 30 different cultures spanning 15 countries, and some 2000 years of history. The oldest artifacts, made in terracotta from the Nok area of Nigeria, date back to 500 B.C. to 500 A.D.

Many pieces in this collection are extremely rare. The miniature Benin ivory leopard is one of only two in existence, the other of which is in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art. The Dogon and Ndengese figures are equally rare. Examples of Royal Benin brass casting are also represented here, along with wood and ivory carvings from a number of African cultures.

Some works from this collection have appeared in the literature on African art. Two Sande masks and the Mahongwe mask were illustrated in African Art in American Collections (Robbins & Nooter: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989). Others have appeared in exhibitions of African art, notably at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., and at the Studio Museum of Harlem.

In addition to the rarity of many pieces in this collection, it is distinguished by its aesthetic value. The collection has been assembled with a fine appreciation of the formal qualities of African art within the idioms dictated by regional styles. Since this would represent the first African Art exhibition in the Queensborough Gallery, it has the potential to attract a new audience both for the college and for the gallery. The fine examples showcased in this brochure represent the scope and quality of this dynamic exhibit.

Lectures presented in conjunction with the exhibition:

Wednesday, May 25, 2005, 2 pm

Artists and Patrons in African Culture


From 1987 to 1999, Ms. Page was an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Queensborough Community College /CUNY and at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey from 1988 to 1995. Prior to that, she was an Assistant Professor of Art at Illinois Wesleyan University, where she also served as Interim Director of the Art Department. Her own paintings and drawings have been shown in New York and elsewhere, including A.I.R. Gallery, 55 Mercer, BMCC /CUNY, Museum of the Hudson Highlands, and Converse College.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005, 2 pm

Collecting: Criteria and Development


As a member of the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, Mr. Schulze began collecting African art in 1962. In addition to teaching history in secondary school, he was assigned as Acting Curator of the Sierra Leone National Museum. He also traveled to Nigeria and Ghana and explored the art production of those countries.

Thursday, September 22, 2005, 6 pm

William Siegmann, Chair of African and Pacific Arts, Brooklyn Museum Mr. Siegmann has been curator of the Brooklyn Museum African and Oceanic collections since 1987. He received his MA and ABD degrees from Indiana University. From 1979 to 1984 he was a Curatorial Associate at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, and has also held curatorial positions in the Museum for African Art of the Society of African Missions in Tenafly, New Jersey; The Africana Museum at Cuttington University College, Suacoco, Liberia; and was Director of the National Museum of Liberia from 1984 to 1987.

Works in Exhibition