High Museum’s new African art curator picks her favorite works

A Pende mask from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The piece was made in the late-19th or early-20th century, of great blue turaco feathers, fiber, and wood. It's part of the High Museum of Art.'s African Art collection.
A Pende mask from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The piece was made in the late-19th or early-20th century, of great blue turaco feathers, fiber, and wood. It's part of the High Museum of Art.'s African Art collection.

Credit: High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

Lauren Tate Baeza plans to expand the High’s overall African collection.

In the 2018 movie “Black Panther,” as a prelude to a murderous heist, the villain, Erik Killmonger, looks at African artifacts in the fictional Museum of Great Britain.

Masks, statuary and other antiquities in the gallery float behind glass cases as Killmonger lays a trap for the unsuspecting African art curator sent to give him a guided tour. Some fans of the movie probably already know the scene was filmed not on a soundstage but in an actual museum, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. And while the “antiquities” in the scene were likely props, the High has a considerable African art collection.

Last fall, the High named Lauren Tate Baeza, as its new curator of African art. She was previously executive director of the APEX Museum on Auburn Avenue and director of exhibitions at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. In joining the High, the Atlanta native became the first Black person and the only person of color to become a fulltime, staff curator in the museum’s 116-year history.

She remembers that scene from “Black Panther” and was especially struck by the exchange between Killmonger and the curator when the curator misidentifies the origins of a piece and Killmonger, played by actor Michael B. Jordan, corrects her. Then he points out that so much African art was taken by European colonizers who paid little or nothing for it.

“The part about, ‘that’s not where that object is from,’ really stuck out for me,” Baeza said. “Most of the objects in museums were taken during the colonial era. Sometimes people hurriedly wrote down the name of a country, but they don’t really know the ethnic group that they belong to. So, there’s a lot of mislabeling and inaccuracy and question marks in African art collections everywhere.”

So, we asked Baeza to select her five favorite pieces from the High’s existing African art collection and to talk about their relevance today. From a 14th century terra cotta sculpture that speaks to life before the transatlantic slave trade, to a wooden carving of a water deity that was an inspiration for Beyoncé's film “Lemonade,” there were surprises. All but the Ijo water spirit headdress are currently on view in the museum’s African art gallery.

Half of the existing collection comes from Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d’Ivoire — or Ivory Coast. Baeza wants to engage African artists in those countries as well as Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali, to bring in more contemporary pieces to the High’s collection, but in a spirit of partnership and respect, rather than plunder.

“It makes it really difficult to get accurate records of African artifacts unless you have built that trust and are constantly engaging in the communities that you are trying to represent,” Baeza said. “I think there’s going to be 100 years of work rewriting catalogs for African collections.”

From a Time of Kings

This terra cotta Bankoni sculpture from the Mali region of Africa is the oldest example of African art in the High Museum of Art's collection. The female figure was created in the 14th century. Courtesy of the High Museum of Art
This terra cotta Bankoni sculpture from the Mali region of Africa is the oldest example of African art in the High Museum of Art's collection. The female figure was created in the 14th century. Courtesy of the High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during a resurgence of Pan-Africanist thought and dress, particularly in hip hop, references to the great civilizations of ancient Africa were common. The fact that pre-colonial Africa in the 13th and 14th centuries had thriving linguistic and cultural exchange capitals, particularly Timbuktu in Mali, inspired groups of rap and spoken word artists. This terra cotta figure was created in the Bankoni region of Mali during that fertile period in the 14th century and is one of several in the High’s collection.

“A lot of African pieces were created to be temporary, to return to the Earth,” Baeza said. “But they are the oldest surviving pieces from Africa, period.”

The figures often depicted occupations of residents of the region, such as vendors, farmers, teachers. Their bodies are usually elongated, and there is traditional scarification on the faces of the figures as there might have been on the faces of some residents. You might think of the scars then as tattoos are today, ornamentation or markers of cultural identification.

“People weren’t ascribing sophistication to pre-colonial Africa,” Baeza said of some European observers. “There’s this narrative that sophistication didn’t come until colonialism brought it and these figures fly in the face of that.”

Carved by a Nigerian artist who was likely of the Igbo people, this sculpture represents the powerful water spirit  Mami Wata. Carved of wood in the 1950s, the piece represents a deity that appears throughout the African diaspora and was an inspiration for Beyonce's film,  "Lemonade." Courtesy of the High Museum of Art
Carved by a Nigerian artist who was likely of the Igbo people, this sculpture represents the powerful water spirit Mami Wata. Carved of wood in the 1950s, the piece represents a deity that appears throughout the African diaspora and was an inspiration for Beyonce's film, "Lemonade." Courtesy of the High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

A muse of survival

Beyoncé's film “Lemonade” was such celebration of female power and mystique that it was hard to look away during its 65-minute run time. The artist’s golden yellow dress was showstopper enough. But the image of her clad in that gown while walking through a burst of frothing water cascading down marble steps was breathtaking. It was also an homage to the water deity Mami Wata, a sort of mermaid figure, who has the power to punish, but also to bring good fortune, money and love.

Baeza said the female water deity is a “shining example of persistence of culture,” in that she shows up in various forms throughout the African diaspora created by the transatlantic slave trade. She shows up in the present day in the Caribbean and South America in religious rituals, as well as in pop culture.

In the United States, however, which received a relatively small percentage of Africans brought over for enslavement, her presence is less obvious in the culture. That said, if you’ve ever walked through the Zimbabwe exhibition at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, you may have seen the stone sculpture “Nzuzu” a female water spirit.

“We have a little more distance between us (and Mami Wata) than those Caribbean and South American cultures, but she represents female agency, assertion and self-possession,” Baeza said.

The High has this mid-20th century carving of a version of Mami Wata, carved by an unknown Nigerian artist, probably of Igbo lineage.

“Across oceans and landmasses, and the brutal inhumane trade [of] people, she survives,” Baeza said.

ExploreAriel Dannielle’s self-portraits put everyday Black life on full display

Birds of a feather

This is a Pende mask from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The piece was made in the late-19th or early-20th century, of great blue turaco feathers, fiber, and wood. It's part of the High Museum of Art's African Art collection.
This is a Pende mask from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The piece was made in the late-19th or early-20th century, of great blue turaco feathers, fiber, and wood. It's part of the High Museum of Art's African Art collection.

Credit: High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

Masks have taken on a completely different connotation in the last year. Now, they are tools of protection, and for some, political symbols. This late 19th, early 20-century mask by an unknown Pende artist from the Democratic Republic of Congo is about celebration and ritual. Made for a man, it uses the feathers of the blue turaco bird.

“I love the regional specificity of it because that bird is local,” Baeza said. “And I love that because in our global world of trade now, it’s not that common.”

The crowning of feathers around the face, the tubular eyes and lack of facial features suggest the spiritual world. The rich blues and inky blacks set off by golden beige are the embodiment of celebration.

“The costume is your portal,” Baeza said. “Even when you put on lipstick, there is something about adornment that is transformational.”

Wade in the Water

An unknown 20th-century Nigerian artist, most likely from the Ijo, Abua, or Ekpeye people created this headdress honoring a water spirit. Made from polychrome, wood and mirrors the piece honors friendly or helpful aquatic spirits. Courtesy of the High Museum of Art
An unknown 20th-century Nigerian artist, most likely from the Ijo, Abua, or Ekpeye people created this headdress honoring a water spirit. Made from polychrome, wood and mirrors the piece honors friendly or helpful aquatic spirits. Courtesy of the High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

Shark, crocodile, fins. What creature is this?

“It’s not literal,” Baeza said. “It’s a composite of land, river and sea.”

As with Mami Wata, water plays a pivotal role in this spirit headdress. It’s of Nigerian origin, 20th century in vintage, made by an artist who could have been Igbo, Abua, or Ekpeye. While in this picture it appears mounted, it is meant to fit the wearer like a hat, the fins and teeth facing the heavens. But this is no static thing. It’s worn during dance, and when the dancer tilts his head, “it mimics the movement of water,” Baeza said. “This one is not constructed of a single piece of wood. It just uses lots of individual parts.”

The movement of the dancer takes on a playful quality, Baeza said. And even though the piece is a blend of fish, crocodile and shark, it’s supposed to inspire delight rather than fear.

“As with Mami Wata, they are deities of wealth and power. and I think some of this is because of the role the sea and rivers in trade and commerce,” Baeza said. “And so it’s a sort of celebration of all water forms and those deities that preside over those forms and all that they provide.”

I Shall Wear a Crown

A Yoruba crown of Obatala or "king" made in the late 19th or early 20th-century, in Nigeria. The unknown artists were likely women who crafted the crown of glass beads, cloth, fiber and leather. Courtesy of the High Museum of Art
A Yoruba crown of Obatala or "king" made in the late 19th or early 20th-century, in Nigeria. The unknown artists were likely women who crafted the crown of glass beads, cloth, fiber and leather. Courtesy of the High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

This is Baeza’s favorite piece, one that speaks to the creation story. The Yoruba tradition in Nigeria speaks of the world’s creation when Obatala, as the child of God, is sent to Earth to create land on a planet covered with water. Then he’s sent back to create humanity. As such, he represents humility, honesty, resurrection and purity.

Like Mami Wata, his story traveled across the Atlantic with enslaved Africans.

This piece was created in the late 19th or early 20th-century, by an unknown Nigerian artist. It’s called the Crown of Obatala, rendered in white, the color most associated with the deity. The intricacy of the beading, from the veil to the top of the crown, suggests that it was likely made for a person of great esteem. The bird at the top of the crown is an intermediary between heaven and earth.

The hands that made the crown, and others like it, were skilled and the work was done almost as a ritual itself, as a meditation.

“I think you could maybe get there in a shorter route, or use different types of beadwork, then the crown wouldn’t have as much value,” Baeza said. “You have to do it a specific way, or it won’t be compatible with their world view.”

The color, and its association with creation, may have ties even now to the African American, Deep South tradition of wearing white to funerals.

“I really love the piece,” Baeza said. “I find it stops me in my tracks. Just imagine the labor poured over it and the energy of that labor.”

Lauren Tate Baeza is curator of African Art at the High Museum. File
Lauren Tate Baeza is curator of African Art at the High Museum. File

Credit: Gabriela Arp

Credit: Gabriela Arp

MUSEUM EXHIBIT

African Art at the High Museum of Atlanta

Selected works from the High’s African Art collection are currently on view in the skyway level gallery.

Mondays: Closed; Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.; 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta, 404-733-4400, high.org.

In Other News