Nestled in the back corner of the Smithsonian Gardens, hidden by the Smithsonian Castle, sits two quadrangle pavilions. These structures which look more like monuments of the garden are in fact entrances to two separate museums. One pavilion leads visitors to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery which features Asian art, the other leads to the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA). The NMAfA is often confused and conflated with the larger and more popular National Museum of African American History and Culture. I had never heard of the museum before I began an internship there in the summer of 2018, even though I had visited the National Mall, which houses many of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums, many times before. While the NMAfA is smaller and receives fewer visitors than many of the museums on the National Mall, the work done by the staff of curators and museum professionals is on par with anything that you would find in any of the larger institutions.
While the NMAfA is categorized as an Art Museum, it contains more than just your standard fine art. It holds artifacts that represent the cultural heritage of many African societies, past and present. From the famed Benin Bronzes cast hundreds of years ago by skilled guild members of the Edo people, to works by modern African artists, this small museum conveys an image of Africa that is not always readily present. So much of what we in the West know of Africa is shaped by the cultural legacy of paternalism developed through centuries of the slave trade and colonization. The NMAfA reveals an Africa that is so much more than the past 400 years of Western contact would have us think; an Africa with a deep and rich history that stretches back generations.
The Benin Bronzes have received a lot of attention in recent years as Nigeria presses Western institutions for the return of the bronzes. The bronzes were taken from the Kingdom of Benin, which is located in the present-day country of Nigeria, during the 1897 Punitive Expedition. The expedition was Britain’s response to the Benin Massacre. In January of 1897 acting Consul General James Robert Phillips led a military force disguised as a diplomatic envoy to Benin City, the capital of the African Kingdom, to try to coarse Benin’s king to honor a treaty handing over exclusive trading rights to the British. The British force was ambushed miles away from the city by Benin soldiers, only two British officers survived the engagement. When news of the massacre reached British officials, a full-scale invasion of the African Kingdom was launched. The resulting Punitive Expedition saw the sacking and destruction of the capital city of the Benin Kingdom as retribution. To pay for the expedition, the British looted countless treasures from the royal palace and sold them to institutions in the West. The NMAfA did not receive the Benin Bronzes that are currently on exhibit at the museum directly from the Punitive Expedition. The provenance of their bronzes is through legal sales at some later point in time. While there have been no calls for the NMAfA to return their Bronzes, museums across the Western world must brace themselves for the increased requests for restitution.
Some of the more contemporary artwork at the museum shows an Africa that has inspired creativity and resilience that is unmatched outside of the continent. One of the many impressive exhibits on display at the museum is of a giant serpent, made out of used gas cans, eating its own tail. The piece titled, The Rainbow Serpent, was created by Romuald Hazoumè and tells the visual story of man’s relationship to nature and the environment. As the museum’s website explains Hazoumè, “addresses in this and other work the exploitation of human and natural resources and how this affects communities around the world and over time, including the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade centuries ago and its economic equivalents today. The circular image of the rainbow serpent swallowing its tail is a powerful symbol among Fon and Yoruba peoples in Benin and Nigeria, where it refers to spiritual forces and positive ideas about fertility, prosperity, and the eternal cycle of life.”
Visiting the NMAfA is a unique experience as the museum is located below ground. Visitors will enter the museum through the pavilion on the ground floor and then descend a grand staircase to the first of three sublevels where the exhibition halls are located. Being a small museum, the NMAfA does not contain a café or any restaurants, however there is a gift shop located on sublevel one. The gift shop sells an assortment of items from Africa and by African craftsman. Since it is located below ground the museum does not contain any natural light below the ground level. The primary lighting of the museum comes from light fixtures situated on the ceiling. The light level of the museum is kept low, this combined with the independent lighting of the objects draws the visitor’s attention to the exhibits. The NMAfA also houses the largest library in the United States dedicated to Africa. This library provides a wealth of knowledge that is accessible to anyone interested in learning more about Africa and its people.
Like all museums that are a part of the Smithsonian Institution the NMAfA is free, this however does not help its low attendance rates, as potential guests either do not know that the museum exists or choose to spend their time at one of the large museums on the National Mall. The sparse attendance does have an upside as it allows visitors ample time to sit with and appreciate the art on a level that the larger crowds of the more popular museums do not. Benches placed throughout the gallery halls invite visitors to slow down and absorb the meaning of the exhibits and take in the atmosphere of the museum.
During my time as an intern at the National African Art Museum I worked with mount maker Keith Conway as he prepared to mount objects for the then upcoming exhibit, “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women.” The exhibition which opened in the fall of 2018 features gold jewelry from the country of Senegal and showcases the advanced goldsmithing techniques of Senegalese artisans throughout history. While most of my time at the museum was spent color matching and painting mounts for the upcoming exhibition, I was able to meet many of the amazing professionals that are responsible for telling the story of Africa through its cultural heritage. As the calls for repatriation increase, I hope there is place in the future for museums like the NMAfA, which sheds much needed light on societies that are often over looked.
Visitor details can be found on the website: https://africa.si.edu/