Art at the DIACollections

The Wedding Dance Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Image Details
The Wedding Dance (30.374) — Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Africa, Oceania and the Indigenous Americas

The Department oversees four separate collection segments: the arts of Africa, Egypt, the South Pacific, and the Indigenous Americas. Reflecting current scholarship and geography, Egyptian art is now a sub-section of this department. African art thus consists of works from the rest of Africa other than Egypt.

Highlights

View Selections of African, Oceanic, and Indigenous American Art


Head from an Anthropoid Sarcophagus

Head from an Anthropoid Sarcophagus - 332/30 B.C.

Triptych: Icon of the Virgin Mary

Triptych: Icon of the Virgin Mary - late 17th century

Knife Case

Knife Case - 16th / 18th Century

Basket

Basket, c. 1900

Seated Scribe

Seated Scribe - 1391 / 1353 B.C.

African Art

The DIA's African art collection ranks among the finest in the United States. It comprises some rare world-class works from nearly one hundred African cultures, predominantly from regions south of the Sahara desert. A diverse collection, ranging from sculpture to textiles to exquisite utilitarian wares, religious paraphernalia and bodily ornaments, it is heavily weighted toward the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

African art collecting is inextricably tied to the founding of the Detroit Institute of Arts at the turn of 20th century and remains one of the institution's important hallmarks. From the late 1800s through the 1930s, generous contributions from some of Detroit's first collectors, such as Frederick Stearns and Robert Tannahill, helped to develop the core collection. This included priceless works, such as several Benin royal brass sculptures, an exquisite 16th century Kongo Afro-Portuguese ivory knife container, a 17th century Owo ivory bracelet, a Kongo steatite funerary figure (ntadi) and a finely crafted Asante royal gold soul-washer's badge recovered from the chamber of the nineteenth century Asante King, Kofi Karikari. Support from the City of Detroit has since aided the purchase of additional works of exceptional quality and provenance to this early group: for example, a Guro standing female figure from the collection of Tristan Tzara, an early Picasso associate and several Kuba vessels collected by the renowned German explorer Leo Frobenius.

As a result of significant contributions from other luminaries like Eleanor Clay Ford and G. Mennen-Williams, the collection has grown substantially over the last three decades and now boasts more than 300 significant pieces. Some of the most important acquisitions of this period include a rare Benin bronze equestrian statue, a carved wooden palace door by renowned early 20th century Yoruba master carver Olowe of Ise, an Epa mask by his compatriot Bamgboye of Odo-Owa, and the great 19th century Kongo nail figure (nkisi nkonde). Recently the addition of an Ethiopian Coptic Christian triptych, a magnificent nineteenth century Ijo funerary screen from the Kalabari of Nigeria, and a pair of bridal outfits from the Mpondo (Xhosa) of South Africa have further strengthened the DIA's position in the world of African art.

Perhaps the most vibrant aspect of the department, the African collection will likely continue to grow as the collector base of the museum and southeast Michigan expands. While the present emphasis for African art is cultures south of the Sahara desert, the department plans to expand its focus to include North African and contemporary African art.

Egyptian Art

The core collection of Egyptian art came from a donation from Detroit pharmaceutical manufacturer Frederick Stearns in 1890. Stearns had acquired these early pieces, including some mummies, pottery and seals, during his trips to Egypt and the Near East. Additional early works originated as compensation for the DIA's brief support of the Egypt Exploration Fund. For a while, too, the museum commissioned Howard Carter, renowned discoverer of King Tutankhamun's tomb, to serve as its purchase agent. In addition to six Egyptian acquisitions made possible by this arrangement, several fine purchases over the years have boosted the collection.

Today this rich collection includes diverse artistic genres, imagery, and media, representing approximately 3000 years of Egyptian civilization. Among the most significant sculptures are the Seated Man (2465-2323 B.C.), Seated Scribe (ca. 1350 B.C.) and the portrait of Sebek em hat, a leader of Priests (1780 B.C.). However the fine group of mummies, coffins, parts of sarcophagi and tomb walls, together with an array of funerary and religious paraphernalia constitute the collections key attractions. Steles and papyri that document aspects of Egyptian history also enrich the collection. The Papyrus of Nes-min (ca. 300 B.C.) is particularly noteworthy as a complete book of the dead comprising of prayers and spells intended to help the deceased's spirit in the next life. There are also numerous objects that document daily life in ancient Egypt.

Oceanic Art

The DIA possesses a small, but compelling, collection of art from the Pacific Islands, primarily Polynesia and New Guinea. Presenting visitors with a unique perspective on many of the varied cultures of the region, these artifacts display extraordinary craftsmanship while illustrating the vibrant cultural traditions of Oceania. The collection spans approximately 150 years, from the early 1800's through the mid-1900's.

Among the collection's select treasures is a remarkable artifact from Easter Island: an intricately carved, crescent-shaped Pectoral. This large ornament is designed to be worn on the chest. A larger carving created by a sculptor who lived in the upper reaches of the Sepik River, in Northeast New Guinea, is called a Malu Board and represents an ancestral spirit.

Indigenous American Art

The Department's Native American collection includes several exquisite sculptures, ceramics and textiles from North, Central and South America. Chronologically, the collection covers nearly 3,000 years of history. The earliest sculptures come to us from Olmec culture (900-600 BC) and include a beautiful jadite maskette. Two famous Peruvian examples–a miniature poncho and a tunic dated to 100 BC – 100AD and 800 – 1000 AD respectively–exemplify the spectacular textiles, clothing and dress accessories of this collection. Yet another significant aspect of the collection is an outstanding selection of painted clay effigy vessels and stone sculptures from subsequent pre-Columbian cultures.

The relatively more recent American Indian material comprises early religious artifacts, animal skin and bead-embroidered ceremonial attire, including full tunics, moccasins and shoulder bags, as well as a superb Navaho wool blanket dated to the 1870s. A Western Apache basket from the early 1900's and several historic pieces from the Chandler-Pohrt collection substantially increase the importance of the DIA in Native American art scholarship.

Join the Friends of African and African American Art today to meet other art lovers and learn more about the behind the scenes of the DIA's stunning African and African American collections.

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