African Art Exhibit at NCMA

This past summer at the North Carolina Museum of Art the new, expanded African art exhibit was unveiled as part of their permanent collection in the East Building. With works that span 16 centuries in a space three times larger than the previous gallery, NCMA brings art to Raleigh in a poignant, informative, and freshly interactive way.

Veranda Posts depicting priestesses, priests, and devotees to  osiras  (Yoruba spirits). To the left is a Nigerian Epa Helmet Mask from the late 19th century and a Yoruba palace door of wood and pigment.

Veranda Posts depicting priestesses, priests, and devotees to osiras (Yoruba spirits). To the left is a Nigerian Epa Helmet Mask from the late 19th century and a Yoruba palace door of wood and pigment.

Throughout the gallery there is an emphasis on the importance of objects: their many-layered meanings (from symbolic to religious, ancestral, to geographical), the objects’ beauty, their utility, and their place in history as well as relevancy in the modern day. And the exhibit presents a plethora of objects! – from a wood-carved Shango Dance Staff to beaded skirts, masks, or woven clothes worn in ceremony.Peoples in the Kuba Kingdom, for example, amass cloths and regalia as a means to measure wealth and symbolize power and its responsibilities. A Kongo chief’s staffs on display carved with figures serve as nods to ancestry and modernity, symbolic of calm uprightness, the staffs an almost ode to higher mystic powers of the universe. In Western Africa, the Akan peoples hold high esteem for gold, representative of the soul (kra) and a reflection of the sun.

Each object in NCMA’s exhibit is not only meaningful but also well-explained and displayed. That is to say that through this density of information emerges quite clearly the spirit of each piece and of the African art exhibit as a whole: community.

In addition to the ‘traditional’ gallery space there is an interactive environment (Threads of Experience) adjacent to the art where people can create their own exhibit-inspired embroidery with yarn or thread. There is also a sitting area for children and a collaborative Kuba-inspired loom made of nylon stretched ceiling to floor.

Community loom at NCMA’s exhibit.

Community loom at NCMA’s exhibit.

As you walk out of the exhibit video footage of masquerades (communal dances) plays on a flatscreen. People in intricately woven and decorated costumes swirl and stutter in dance to the beat of drums and hum of vocals. While the exhibit is brimming with information – fun facts, dates, how objects were made, kingdoms and their rulers and what they wore, for example – the truth of the exhibit seems to emerge in the feeling when you walk among the artifacts and installations: you really have to be there, to feel it. It is more than just the statistics or the fact that 125 objects are now in a bigger space than before – each object's designs are imbued with generations of cultural memories and meanings, an energy, that is most poignantly experienced in person.

Living in a society saturated with material goods, this exhibit reminds us of what we've forgotten, or perhaps what is missing / latent... The inherent value of coming together to create something, whether art or a piece of clothing, where what matters is not the quantity but the quality; where objects are not just objects but are living relics with stories etched in their designs by the hands that made them. The textures and the contrasts of color in this exhibition materialize a richness of cultural personality that is refreshing and humbling.

Interested in African art and/or have a love for beautiful handmade objects? Visit NCMA's webpage for more information: and go check out the exhibit in person! If you have any questions or wish to share about your experience at the African art exhibit feel free to comment below. We would love to hear what you think!


Andrew Cheek

Andrew Cheek is the Head Writer and Content Coordinator for Beaumonde. He graduated from North Carolina State University and is in process of polishing the manuscript for his children’s novella. With a background in literature and film, and a taste for half-marathons, Andrew’s inspirations range from Virginia Woolf to Wes Anderson to his Adidas running shoes. You can find Andrew on Twitter and LinkedIn.