African Art: The Art of Assemblage

, University Collections Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

University Collections Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

The works in this gallery represent varied cultures across the continent of Africa over the past 150 years and are characterized by formal and conceptual notions of contingency and binding. Featuring such diverse objects as a power bundle from Liberia, a Dogon iron staff with hanging bells from Mali, divination instruments from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and lidded baskets from Uganda, this installation reveals the enormous breadth and depth of the continent’s artistic production as well as an aesthetic predisposition to partiality and temporary fusion.

In most of these objects, parts are read as discrete units. Viewers are asked to bind parts together with the implicit understanding that these units can and will revert to parts that can be materially or imaginatively reconfigured. One sees this in the unresolved merger of an abstract cup and figurative lower body of the Kuba sculpture (Case 8), in the power bundles attached to the Yaka figure (Case 20) that could easily be divested from the sculpture, or in the amulets already removed from their owners’ bodies.

This unresolved relationship between part and whole and the endless potential for reconfiguration are referenced in the installation design itself: the initial focus on the whole and singular object (for instance, the Kuba cup), the breakdown into constituent parts as one travels around the gallery, and the massing of multiple parts on the back wall.

The idea that an object is finished, whole, or complete is not a central principle in African art. Objects are understood to be perpetually in process, temporarily fusing with other objects, human bodies, or the spaces they inhabit. They can be recombined or imbued with new power and possibility.

These resilient and elastic works on view continue to respond to the circumstances in which they find themselves and to the demands viewers make on them—including audiences here at the Harvard Art Museums.

The University Collections Gallery is dedicated to the display of works of art from Harvard University’s collections beyond those held by the Harvard Art Museums. Embedded in the Collections Gallery program, this gallery presents university collections in a different display context and allows for expanded dialogue between these objects and those of the Harvard Art Museums. We are grateful to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University for lending the African objects on display here. This installation was guest curated by Kristina Van Dyke, Director of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.

This exhibition is made possible in part by funding from the Current-use gift from William E. Teel and the William E. Teel African and Oceanic Arts Endowment.