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Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) African Art Exhibition Opens Sept 25

Exhibition reveals one theme of the Museum’s African collection reinstallation

BALTIMORE, MD – Hand Held: Personal Arts from Africa brings together more than 80 artworks from the BMA’s collection that skillfully merge artistry with utility. On view September 25, 2011–February 5, 2012, the exhibition includes a variety of seats, vessels, blankets, combs, hats, and other objects created for individuals and households in 21 African countries. Each of these artfully crafted pieces was repeatedly handled or worn by their owners, suggesting that beautiful objects are essential to life. The exhibition also celebrates a facet of the BMA’s rich and historic African art collection, which will be reinstalled as part of the BMA’s major renovation project.

Hand Held begins by focusing on individuality through objects that transcended their basic purpose to also proclaim the wearer’s personal style and identity. Often these artworks became so associated with their owners that they were retained by the family as heirlooms or as memorial objects. Highlights include dramatic and refined hats and combs, sculpturally crafted loom pulleys, and vibrant skirts and wrappers. There is also a selection of intricately carved and embellished staffs that proclaimed the ranks of royal officials and other leaders. The second half of the exhibition presents domestic objects that not only served but also beautified the household and its surroundings such as ceramic and fiber vessels that collected and safeguarded water, milk, and grains, or wood and brass containers that protected cosmetics and jewelry. Woven textiles and carved architectural elements offered comfort and protection while also adorning and delineating living spaces.

The exhibition is installed in galleries adjacent to the museum’s African collection, providing a more expansive view of the BMA’s remarkable holdings. The African countries represented by artworks in Hand Held are: Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, and Zambia. Several works in the exhibition come from major recent acquisitions being shown for the first time. A selection of videos and photographs will show how the objects were created and used.

Hand Held: Personal Arts from Africa is curated by Nichole Bridges, Associate Curator for African Art.

The exciting reinstallation of the BMA’s African collection will significantly enhance the visitor’s experience with the African artworks. Increased gallery space will allow for dramatically improved displays of African masks, textiles, and other objects in ways that better convey their original scale and context. Objects will be organized thematically rather than geographically to show cross-cultural connections. The reinstallation will also include a designated space for special thematic displays so that visitors can look forward to seeing more of the collection each time they visit.

One of the first African holdings in an American art museum, the BMA collection was inaugurated with its first gifts in 1947, the year after the Museum organized a pioneering exhibition titled simply: An Exhibition of African Art. The BMA’s historical participation at the vanguard for presenting African art set the stage for Alan and Janet Wurtzburger’s generous gift of non-Western art in 1954.Today there are more than 2,100 artworks in the African collection, ranging from a pre-dynastic Egyptian ceramic beaker to a contemporary Nigerian bead painting. The collection is particularly strong in West African art with masks, figures, stools, and other sculptural forms in wood, many with attachments of metal, fiber, and organic material. In addition, there are brass cast weights, ceramics, beadwork, ivory miniatures, jewelry, carved stone, and metal currency forms and weapons. Many pieces are distinguished by their use in royal courts, performances, and religious contexts, and several are internationally known as the best of their type, such as D’mba, an unparalleled Baga female dance headdress from Guinea.


The Baltimore Museum of Art is home to an internationally renowned collection of 19th-century, modern, and contemporary art. Founded in 1914, the BMA’s outstanding collection encompasses 90,000 works of art, including the largest and most significant holding of works by Henri Matisse in the world, as well as masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Vincent van Gogh. An expanding collection of contemporary art features iconic post-1960 works by Andy Warhol and Sol LeWitt, as well as exciting acquisitions by artists such as Kara Walker and Olafur Eliasson. The BMA is also recognized for an internationally acclaimed collection of prints, drawings, and photographs from the 15th-century to the present; grand European painting and sculpture from Old Masters to the 19th-century; distinguished American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts and Maryland period rooms; one of the most important African collections in the country, and notable examples of Asian, ancient American, and Pacific Islands art.


General admission to the BMA is free; special exhibitions may be ticketed. The BMA is open Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m. (except major holidays). The Museum is closed Monday, Tuesday, New Year’s Day, July 4, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The BMA is located on Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st Streets, three miles north of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. For general Museum information, call 443-573-1700 or visit

Image: Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Figurative Palm Wine Cup. 19th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alan Wurtzburger, BMA 1954.145.110

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