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
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
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
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
Museum of African Art
Related Exhibition Review: African Masks: 'Magical Faces of