High and Carlos museums offer new perspectives on African art

Two of Atlanta’s most prominent art institutions have reconfigured and reinvigorated their African art galleries in recent years.

The Michael C. Carlos Museum unveiled a major renovation to its African gallery last August, revealing a space that allows for more flexibility and new technology to be integrated into the display of its collection. In 2014, the High Museum of Art expanded the footprint of its African gallery, almost doubling the space devoted to art from the continent.

Curators at both museums say the changes allow viewers to better engage with the beauty and complexity of African art.

“Sometimes people are intimidated by things they don’t understand, but people shouldn’t be intimidated by African art,” said Carol Thompson, the High Museum’s Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art. “It’s a very intimate art. Just approach it as you would any other kind of art: Move toward what draws you in.”

African art collectors Fred and Rita Richman are credited for the expansion. The Richmans, who endowed Thompson’s position as the institution’s first curator of African art in 2001, offered another gift that funded the gallery expansion from 2,400 square feet to 4,000 square feet, allowing more of the High’s ever-expanding permanent collection to be displayed.

“Very often African art is thought of only as masks and figurative sculpture made out of wood,” said Thompson. “Since I’ve arrived, I’ve tried to diversify the African art collection in every way. I’ve tried to acquire works from ancient to contemporary, and to diversify in terms of materials.”

Recent acquisitions include small-scale works such as a 19th-century royal hat from the Kingdom of Kongo woven from raffia into beautifully intricate geometric patterns and a vibrant, contemporary urban scene depicted in contemporary South African artist Kay Hassan’s colossal triptych “Bus Ride” made from repurposed billboard paper.

As wall text in the gallery explains, works are arranged thematically along a circular path replicating the dikenga, or Kongo cosmogram, which charts the voyage through life in four parts: realms of birth, prime of life, elder status and the ancestral realm. The gallery's arrangement was inspired by contemporary Atlanta artist Radcliffe Bailey, who often depicts the cosmogram in his work as a symbolic representation of the interconnectedness of all generations.

The Carlos Museum’s 600-square-foot gallery space only allows for display of about 3 percent of museum’s holdings in African art. Amanda Hellman, the museum’ curator of African art, oversaw the gallery’s recent reboot, which focused on flexibility, allowing objects to be rotated in and out of the gallery with ease. The space is divided thematically into six different groupings such as “objects of personal use and adornment,” “colonialism” and “power figures.” Each theme features six or seven objects, which can be changed out over time.

Instead of wall text, information about each object is stored on iPads displayed on custom-made stands fashioned from iroco, a traditional West African hardwood.

“I really want people to look at the art first and to spend more time with the objects,” said Hellman. “It encourages viewers to think about these objects aesthetically, rather than just ethnographically. I just hope to get people to think about them differently, to look more closely.”

Viewers curious to learn more about individual objects can use the touch-screens to access information about the item’s creation, as well as a map showing where it’s from and details about the techniques employed in the museum’s conservation lab to restore and preserve it.

The core of the Carlos collection came in 1994 as a gift and partial purchase from William Arnett, who was an African art dealer before he switched gears to his more famous role as a collector of African-American art from the American South. Because Arnett worked primarily in West Africa, one of Hellman’s primary interests as a curator is to round out the collection with art from other regions of Africa.

Such efforts, said Hellman, are designed to get more viewers to engage with the aesthetics of African art.

“When we look at African art, we often get caught up in the questions of where’s it from, how is it made, who made it, what does it do,” she said. “But if you spend a few moments with each work, you’ll start to see the nuances… Really, these objects are absolutely extraordinary. ”


The High Museum of Art. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Saturdays; until 9 p.m. Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $19.50; $16.50, students and seniors; $12, ages 6-17; free, children 5 and younger and members.1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.

The Michael C. Carlos Museum. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $8 adults; $6 students, seniors and children (ages 6-17); Free for children 5 and under. Emory University, 571 S. Kilgo Circle, 404-727-4282, www.carlos.emory.edu