African Art and Indian Art of the Americas

The Art Institute of Chicago galleries move in to a new, larger home.

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  • Photograph: Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

    Baga headdresses

  • Photograph: Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

    Bamana headdresses

  • Photograph: Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

    Moctezuma Commemoration Stone

  • Photograph: Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

    Maidu Storage Basket

  • Photograph: Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

    Puebloan Storage Jar

  • Photograph: Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

    Mayan vase

  • Photograph: Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

    Zulu wood relief carvings

Photograph: Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Baga headdresses


African and Native American art at the Art Institute of Chicago gets a new home, starting Friday 3. Moved to the museum’s Morton Wing (formerly the contemporary art wing), the African Art and Indian Art of the Americas galleries have more than triple the space of their previous gallery. This allowed curators Kathleen Bickford Berzock and Richard Townsend to display dozens of never-before-exhibited works and make a few unusual curatorial choices. The curators worked closely with architect Kulapat Yantrasast, from Los Angeles–based firm wHY, who imbued the space with a clean, light and warm aesthetic that shows off dark-toned art objects, including masks, pottery, textiles and beadwork. Here’s what not to miss.

• Because of the larger space, Bickford Berzock, the African collection curator, took the opportunity to include work from all geographic regions of Africa, and, in some instances, the display shows how these different regions aesthetically influenced one another through trade. Bucking convention, Bickford Berzock mixed pottery, textiles and beadwork together with more familiar African staples like wood masks and ritual figures within the same display cases.

• A series of architectural elements, nicknamed gates, separates the larger galleries into smaller, more intimate areas—allowing a fluid movement of visitors. Each gate is composed of a simple wood archway and flanked by transparent display cases.

Ci wara means farming animal in the language of Mali’s Bamana people. These headdresses—icons of the Art Institute—depict a pair of mythical ci wara: half antelope and half anteater.

• Curators chose to display these large mid-19th- to early-20th-century Baga headdresses from Guinea on a low-lying platform, bringing them closer to visitors. Matching costumes were reconstructed for the exhibition, a novel approach for the museum, which normally stresses authenticity over replication.

• Zulu artist Ntzinyanga Qwabe, born in South Africa in 1900, created wood relief carvings of people and animals. They reflect a transition between traditional and modern African art in the mid-20th century.

• In Indian Art of the Americas, Townsend strived to present a broad range of material from the entire Western Hemisphere, including works from native North America, Mesoamerica (think Maya and Aztec) and ancient Peru.

• Departing from traditional art exhibitions devoted to native cultures, the curators installed videos that place the objects in their cultural context. Ceremonial masks, after all, weren’t intended to be displayed inside glass cases. The videos present art objects and traditional ceremonial dances.

• The American Southwest section of the exhibition features dozens of pots, including this 1,000-year-old ancestral puebloan storage jar. In a bold move, curators displayed ancient finds next to more contemporary works, representing an unbroken tradition spanning centuries.

• The North American section features an extensive collection of native baskets, like this 1910 Maidu storage basket. Amazingly, many of these baskets held water, reflecting the basket makers’ mastery of this art form.

• Ah Maxam, this Mayan vase’s creator, lived around A.D. 750 in the Maya city of Naranjo. He signed the vase, which features glyphic writing and a water-lily motif symbolizing the cycle of birth, death and renewal.

• During the construction of Mexico City’s subway, workers stumbled upon this stone monument. It commemorates the coronation of the ill-fated Aztec emperor Moctezuma II in the year 1503.

African Art and Indian Art of the Americas go on permanent display starting Friday 3.


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