National Museum of African Art

“Wind Sculpture VII” by Yinka Shonibare MBE, 2016

We have moved to DC!!!! Well sorta. So my super amazing girlfriend and I have graduated from graduate school and we have both got pretty outstanding jobs in Washington DC. I feel like we have become in many facets a very certain type of person/couple, and I think for now at least we are both pretty okay with that because DC has some excellent museums we are both very excited to go to. We’re in blog time, so by the time you (“you” here being most likely my super amazing girlfriend, so hi! I love you ❤) read this we will both actually physically be in DC, but while I was experiencing these events she was in MA working remotely and I was in DC crashing in my cousin’s basement.

While here in DC I had a weekend free and had recently found out that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art existed and I wanted to go. Besides the museums, one of the reasons that my super amazing girlfriend and I are excited to be in DC is because we have a bunch of friends here. So I rounded up my friend Alison and off we went to the museum. It was pretty great!

“Wedding Souvenirs” by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2016

One of the first and most surprising things I learned about the museum is that it bills itself as “the only museum in the United States solely dedicated to the dynamic and diverse arts of Africa.” It is pretty stunning that it is the only one, though maybe in retrospect that isn’t so weird. The Yale University Art Gallery has a section dedicated to African Art, so the Smithsonian clearly isn’t the only place in the US you can see African art, but maybe it is reasonable that it is the only place dedicated to African art.

Since I had been to the Yale University Art Gallery I was actually a bit worried about this museum. I might be talking out of my ass here, but one thing that made me uncomfortable about that gallery is as you walk around the Africa wing it seemed to me that the concentration of art mirrored very closely the harshness and length of colonial rule. Plus, thinking back, I don’t think I remember any particularly contemporary African artists. That experience had me apprehensive about what I would find at this museum.

“Contact” by Nandipha Mntambo, 2010

I was pleasantly surprised to discover, therefore, that the National Museum of African Art has a much wider range of African art on display, ranging from the more ancient to the contemporary, and in many different styles. It was fantastic! The place is also quite large. The ground footprint is not very large, so I thought it wouldn’t take very long to get through the museum, but it just keeps going down farther and farther into the ground so there is a lot more to see there than you would initially suspect. Below you can see the second sub-basement as viewed from the first sub-basement, and it goes down for another sub-basement after that.

Center: “Rainbow Serpent” by Romuald Hazoumè, 2007

All the pictures so far have been some of the more contemporary pieces that I enjoyed. A couple of them I took pictures of before I realized they had nautical themes, which is I suppose why I was attracted to them. At the very top is “Wind Sculpture VII,” which evokes a ship’s sail, according to the plaque. “Contact,” the piece made of cowhide, was inspired by a ship’s figurehead that “comes towards us but is always just beyond reach.” It was cast from the artist’s own body and made of cowhide as a tribute to her cattle-raising Swazi heritage. The most impressive part of the ouroboros right above is, in my opinion, is that it is made of jerry cans, and man that is a lot of jerry cans.

Benin bronzes, Mid-16th to 17th century

Colonialism did manage to rear its head, however. I was a little stunned, probably naively so, that the museum had some of the Benin bronzes on display. The plaque next to them did talk about the museum’s “longstanding collaboration with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments,” so maybe there isn’t so much tension there, but still, how haven’t we returned these things? They are, like all the rest of the art on display, beautiful and intricate and detailed, and I am glad I got to see them, but the fact of their presence puts them in a pretty intense conversation with every other exhibit.

Astrolabe constructed by Muhammad ibn al-Fattuh al-Khama’iri, 1236-37

I don’t have anything much to say about the above astrolabe, except maybe wow. That thing is phenomenal. It was in the third sub-level, and so near the very end of the museum experience. I am excited to go back! But having wandered through the whole museum, Alison and I packed up and ascended the stairs to re-emerge into the daylight. She hopped on her bike and head home and I wandered about the courtyard a bit before heading next door to the Castle, which I had passed many times but had never been in. This explains why I was stunned that Jimmy Smithson’s crypt is right inside the front door? This is probably my second-favorite crypt now, after John Paul Jones. Look, my first choice is to live forever, but on the off chance I fail to do that, I would very much like to be interred in an ornate crypt that is trafficked by thousands of visitors. If it is very nearby to an excellent art museum you should very much visit, all the better!