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Staff Report

WASHINGTON, D. C., 2 October 2005—The Smithsonian has received one of the world’s finest known collections of traditional African art—the Walt Disney-Tishman Collection. The 525-piece collection, which will become part of the National Museum of African Art, is a comprehensive collection that includes most major styles of African art, ranging from a highly abstract Cameroon mask to a naturalistic carved wooden male figure from Madagascar. The collection is a gift from the Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company.

"This collection is considered to be one of the most significant and respected collections of African art, and it will play a vital role in our  understanding of African culture," said Lawrence M. Small, Secretary of the Smithsonian. Outgoing Disney CEO Michael Eisner quipped, "It became clear that this kind of collection was inappropriate in a warehouse."

The dollar value of the collection has been a topic of speculation with some specialists advancing $50 million, while more consverative dealers estimate a figure closer to $20 million. Be that as it may, prices for African art have increased significantly since the late 1990s when a new world record for a male figurine reliquary from Northern Gabon brought over $ 1 million at auction in Paris. Moreover, African art has always been a rather confidential affair——the domain of a tiny minority of passionate scholars, savvy dealers and astute collectors.

The National Museum of African Art plans to exhibit selected pieces from the collection immediately and mount a full exhibition in February 2007 in a dedicated space in the museum under the name The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection.

"This is truly a milestone in the history of our museum," said Sharon F. Patton, director of the National Museum of African Art. "These works are unsurpassed in rarity and uniqueness. The collection establishes depth and diversity for the National Museum of African Art that no other museum in the United States has."

History of the Collection

New York real estate developer Paul Tishman and his wife, Ruth, acquired their first African sculptures (an ivory figure and a bronze helmet mask—both from the Benin kingdom, Nigeria) in the early 1960s and continued collecting for the next 20 years. In interviews, the Tishmans said that they were intrigued by the honesty and power of the art and its influence on contemporary Western art. For example, the stylized masks by the Kwele, Fang and Kota peoples from Gabon and by the Songye people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo inspired 20th-century artists such as Picasso and Juan Gris. Their comprehensive collection became known for its range: the art represents 75 peoples and 20 countries.

Disney purchased the collection from the Tishmans in 1984 and named it the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection. Since the acquisition, Disney has made the collection accessible to the public through loans, special exhibitions and publications.

Objects from the collection have been displayed in exhibitions at museums and cultural institutions worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre in Paris and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. In September 2004, Walt Disney’s Epcot Center opened an exhibit, Echoes of Africa , that paired works of contemporary American artists with historic pieces from the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection.

Since 2002, the National Museum of African Art has had six works from the collection on long-term loan. These include a 15th-century ivory hunting horn from Sierra Leone and three ivory armlets made for Nigerian kings that show a mastery of technique and complex imagery; and a door from Côte d’Ivoire, probably carved in the 1920s, that offered both symbolic protection and prestige to its owner.

The variety of styles, materials and types of objects that are represented in this collection of traditional African art is distinctive. Familiar works, such as the Dogon Female Figure, are found together with unfamiliar works, like the Kuyu Janus Figure. There are ritual objects and utilitarian ones—most of which are associated with prestige, power and status.

Highlights of the Collection include:

• Hunting horn (Sierra Leone, Sherbro-Portuguese), ivory, late 15th century—one of three existing examples by the same hand, the Sherbro-Portuguese ancient hunting horn is among one of the most richly decorated items of this type. It features carvings of European hunting scenes; inscriptions and heraldic signs mark a significant joint event in Spain and Portugal’s history.

• King figure (Grassfields region, Cameroon, Bafum-Katse chiefdom)  
Wood, pigment, hair, ivory, bone, cloth, glass bead, early 19th century
During his reign, a Cameroon chief would commission a figure representing his role as a victorious leader. This figure sits on a leopard (now missing its head) and holds a sword and the head of a defeated enemy.

• Crest mask (Cameroon, Bamileke peoples), wood, late 19th century—this rare mask, which is characterized by cylinders, circular patterns, geometric shapes and parallel lines, was an instrument of social control and represented the power and rank of the king and other dignitaries.

• Armlet (Nigeria, Yoruba peoples), ivory, 16th century—carved from one piece of ivory, this item consists of finely pierced panels overlaid with a three-dimensional outer layer of people and animals.

• Helmet Mask, Ododua (Nigeria, Edo peoples), bronze, 18th century—a bold illustration of technical and artistic achievement, this very rare ritual helmet mask addresses the spiritual power of the king, with dramatic castings of snakes and crocodiles that demonstrate the capacity to destroy enemies.

• Twin Figure with Jacket (Nigeria, Yoruba peoples), wood, 19th-20th century—representing one of the most popular types of African artwork, this twin image is a memorial figure carved to honor deceased twin. To the Yoruba, who have a high rate of twin births, the two individuals are believed to be special, powerful beings who bring good things to those who honor them and misfortune to those who neglect them. The elaborate beadwork on the vest is a sign of royalty.

• Headdress (Nigeria, Calabar area), wood, 20th century—a rare and unusual artwork, this mask has naturalistic features and a relatively long neck, characterizing a lower Cross River provenance in or around the town of Calabar. The mask’s coiffure, which features large down-curving "horn-like" pieces projecting from each side of the head, falls within the range
of hairstyles worn during the coming out ceremony that follows the period of seclusion for girls about to marry.

• Funerary Sculpture (Madagascar, Bara peoples), wood/pigment/metal, 20th century—this large grave post is an individualized portrait that captures the strength, determination and movement of a powerful male figure. Traditional stylistic elements include the coiffure, loincloth and posture of arms holding spears.

Photographs by Eliot Elisofon and courtesy of the Smithsonian

The National Museum of African Art

Related Exhibition Review: African Masks: 'Magical Faces of Africa'

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