The arrangement of these works of art in the galleries highlights connected themes such as power, the importance of ancestors, and life transitions. The majority of these objects were created and used in traditional practices during the middle decades of the 20th century, although some made of durable materials like stone, terracotta, and metal are hundreds of years old. A special section is devoted to Harrison Eiteljorg (1903–1997) and his remarkable role in building one of the most celebrated collections of African art in America.
The reinstallation is made possible by the generous support of Eli Lilly and Company Foundation.
In most of Africa, no event, whether good or bad, is ever seen as happening due to chance. Most traditional African religions stress the importance of the relationship between the living and powerful deceased ancestors, who are in turn the link to a creator god. In some cultures these ancestors were deified, and over time a polytheistic system developed. Likewise, the caprices of a fickle natural world were embodied in a variety of spiritual forces. Many African objects, including those in this gallery, were created with the intent to control or respond to these many unseen powers.
As in Europe, Africa’s royal courts have been places of extraordinary displays of ritual, ceremony, wealth, and highly developed art forms. However, most African royalty is distinct from that of Europe in that African rulers have often been believed to be divine, and this belief is reinforced through myth and visual symbols. Because of the economic, social, religious, and political power of African monarchs, the most valued human and material resources in any kingdom are controlled by kings or queens. As a result, objects created for royalty are some of the most visually and technically spectacular examples of African art that can be seen in this collection.
The cultural values of societies in Africa and elsewhere are often reflected in personal decoration such as hairstyles, jewelry, clothing, and body markings. While fashions always indicate the aesthetic tastes and choices of any society, in Africa they can also signify status, rank within the community, age, gender, or a stage in life. In nomadic societies, such as those along the edge of the Sahara Desert, women and men will often carry their life’s treasures in what they wear.
Like body adornment, how people decorate their personal belongings and the spaces they occupy expresses much about their culture, social roles, and individual tastes. In Africa, where the majority of rural people have traditionally owned only a few items, such as basic utensils, vessels, and small furniture items, their possessions are often designed and decorated with great care. Symbols and patterns on everyday objects are frequently related to religious or social beliefs.
Private collectors of art often play a crucial role in the development of museum collections. The vast majority of the works in these galleries were given to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1989 by the Indiana businessman Harrison Eiteljorg (1903–1997). Well known for his pivotal collection of American art of the West, Eiteljorg first became interested in African art in 1965. During the several decades he spent assembling this eminent collection, Eiteljorg was guided by Dr. Roy Sieber, a professor at Indiana University who was America’s first African art historian and greatly influential in the field.
All people experience moments that mark important passages from one stage of life to the next—from childhood to adulthood; through marriage, parenthood, and old age; and to death and the unknown afterlife. Many of these transitions require stressful changes and risks. Much of traditional African art is concerned with the communal desire for all members of society to proceed safely through life transitions. These objects can be symbolic as well as imbued with powers to assist in life’s passages.
The most important traditional religious belief in much of sub-Saharan Africa is that ancestors are crucial to the health and well-being of the living community. Ancestors—who may include primordial beings, first humans, lineage founders, and the important deceased—connect people to a supreme being or creator god, with the most recently departed forming the critical bridge between the living and the dead. Images of ancestors, reliquaries, memorials, offerings, and ritual objects are among the works included in this gallery.