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Arts of Africa: Redesigned Arts of Africa reopens at DMA

MIKE McGEE | 11/2/2015, 9:30 a.m.
A sense of pride seemed to ring within her voice when Dr. Roslyn Walker spoke about the redesigned Arts of ...
LEFT PHOTO: Coffin of Horankh, Courtesy of the Cecil and Ida Green Acquisition Fund – Ancient Egyptian coffins, which date back to 700 B.C., housed an individual's physical remains and ka [vital force or soul] during the journey to the afterlife. The decorations on the inside and outside of the coffins guaranteed the deceased's survival. There are more than 170 works from the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts of Africa collection that reopened on Sept. 25. CENTER PHOTO: The Torque is a gift of The Cecil and Ida Green Foundation. Heavy castings like this one were used as currency in West Africa prior to the introduction of coinage. Also worn by women in certain ritual dances, torques are considered “stored wealth” because they are composed of the metal from numerous manillas – open bracelets that served as another form of pre-coinage currency. RIGHT PHOTO: A wooden processional cross from Ethiopia, once used for religious rituals, is part of the reopened Arts of Africa gallery (Photo by Mike McGee). Dallas Museum of Art

The Dallas Examiner

A sense of pride seemed to ring within her voice when Dr. Roslyn Walker spoke about the redesigned Arts of Africa gallery housing the African artifacts inside the Dallas Museum of Art.

“… Throughout the museum we’ve done some renovation of galleries and reinstallation. So mine was kind of in the queue for a while,” she remarked. “I’m just really grateful that we were able to do it now.”

Walker is the senior curator of the Arts of Africa, the Americas and the Pacific, as well as The Margaret McDermott Curator of African Art.

The official reopening of the Arts of Africa gallery – the first redesign of the gallery in almost 20 years – occurred Sept. 25 followed by a lunchtime talk and gallery tour on Sept. 30. Admission to the gallery is free as part of the larger DMA collection.

Walker stepped through the third floor display carrying with her an apparent subdued joy as she stopped to pinpoint unique relics.

“This is a sword ornament owned by Kwaku Dua the Second of the Asante people of Ghana …” she said, pointing out a late 19th century gold-silver-copper alloy sphere about the size of an orange, an ornament that once served as a sword adornment for royalty.

For Walker, the respectful preservation and presentation of Africa’s art is the highest of cultural priorities.

“I wanted people to understand African humanity. I mean, we’re all God’s children, right?” she asked. “We may live a little differently but people around the world and through time have the same fears, the same aspirations, the same desires to have a good life.”

She continued discussing the concept of the collection.

“This was art that supports that. African art is a great contribution to world art,” Walker affirmed. “Don’t want to forget that.”

The redesign was budgeted at “a five figure” amount with planning that began in 2011, the doctor recalled. The renewal allows visitors to experience the African art collection through a brighter and more inviting environment, Walker offered.

“It was just really, really dark in the gallery,” she said of the old, smaller space with the taupe, gray and brownish décor. “All this time later I’m thinking ‘I would really like to project brightest Africa.’”

Additions to the gallery include natural light, audio and video displays, and a reproduction of a folk instrument called a thumb piano that visitors can try for themselves.

“The inspiration is interactive. We didn’t have any of that before.”

As Walker moved through the collection she pointed out items that had recently been on loan to other museums around the world; other works in the gallery that have never before been displayed. According to a statement from the museum, the new space features more than 170 collected works. Another change has been the layout of the art.

The original displays were plotted by geographic region, the curator noted. The reopened area now presents the art through thematic installations: The Art of Governance, Art in the Cycle of Life, Decorative Arts and Design, Impact of Trade and Masks.

Walker explained the philosophical approach to the organization of the gallery.

“Because art was a part of life; everyday life,” she indicated, underscoring how each theme area ties art from varied cultures and subcultures of the continent to common principles and concepts.

“It wasn’t set aside to be seen in a museum; these objects were actually used. They were utilitarian – aesthetic objects, but utilitarian objects.”

From objects employed in worship to items used in medicine, the artifacts in the collection demonstrate an extension of African life and creativity in some way, Walker said.

Ultimately, the curator decreed that the improvements were all done to support her mission and that of the museum.

“We have a really fine collection of African art. The whole point of having it is to share it with the public,” Walker asserted. “… To enlighten people, to show them wonderful objects, and to make everybody feel good about learning about other cultures – especially if you’re an African American. This is part of your heritage.”