- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005

A stool. A comb. A water pitcher. A doll. These are things that could be found in a home in 17th-century Africa. Or they can be found in 21st-century Washington. That is the point of “The Art of the Personal Object,” a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

The exhibit displays items used in daily life throughout Africa. Each item tells a story through its design, its decoration and evidence of usage, says curator Andrea Nicholls.

“The exhibit communicates that the objects we use every day are beautiful as well as useful,” she says. “These items are treasured personal possessions, lovingly made and used.”

In today’s society — where families have many possessions and some children always want more — a trip through this exhibit can be a real eye-opener, Ms. Nicholls says.

“We live in a throwaway culture,” she says. “People today don’t keep things for many years. Some of the items in the exhibit have been repaired by their owners, and even the repairs have an aesthetic quality.”

The items are grouped by usage, letting visitors see how different tribes in various African nations might create or decorate the same utilitarian object.

Stools and headrests, hats and jewelry, pipes and spoons, among other items, are displayed.

Many of the works are carved or decorated to convey a message about the owner’s life. For example, a magnificent chair from the Ngombe peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo most likely belonged to a chief. It is carved from a single block of wood and is decorated ornately with wood, brass and iron tacks.

Another work probably made for a king is an armlet (a large bracelet) carved from a single piece of ivory. The armlet, which is from the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria in the 16th century, is covered with panels with raised carvings of people and animals.

“That would be an object of great prestige and wealth,” Ms. Nicholls says.

However, the ordinary objects of daily life have a great presence here as well. There are simple household items such as bowls and cups, some of which are special items used just for guests (much like one would take out the “good dishes” for company). These items represent the position between family intimacy and public formality, the exhibit explains.

One very interesting display in this section is the collection of pot lids from the Woyo peoples of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When wives wanted to send their husbands a message, they placed wooden lids with proverbs (told through images rather than words) on their husbands’ bowls at mealtime.

The proverb was then interpreted according to the situation. For example, the lid with two goats tied to a single post warned about potential difficulties in human relationships. A bird caught by the tail in a snare offers advice about recovering marital harmony.

There also is a new exhibit at the museum. “Treasures,” which opened in November, celebrates the 25-year anniversary of the museum’s being part of the Smithsonian Institution. “Treasures” features 73 works, including masks, sculpture and carvings, from different eras and locations in Africa.

One warning for families with younger children: Some of the sculptures feature men and women with exaggerated gender characteristics. Be prepared for a reaction and questions.

To tour the museum, visitors enter on the Mall level, then proceed downstairs to the galleries. The African art museum connects underground with the Sackler Gallery, which features Asian art, so visitors could spend a warm afternoon looking at the art of faraway lands.

When you go:

Location: The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art is at 950 Independence Ave. SW

Directions: The museum is located on the Independence Avenue side of the Mall, across from L’Enfant Plaza and just past Seventh Street.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Closed Dec. 25.

Admission: Free

Parking: Limited street and meter parking are available. The museum is close to the Smithsonian stop on Metro’s Orange and Blue lines and the L’Enfant Plaza stop on the Orange, Blue, Yellow and Green lines.

More information: 202/633-4600 or www.nmafa.si.edu.


• The museum houses a large collection of items from different eras and locations in Africa. Families will enjoy “The Art of the Personal Object,” which demonstrates how household items can convey great beauty and importance, and “Treasures,” a recently opened exhibition of sculptures and masks.

• The museum has an excellent gift shop, which features many African craft items as well as books and music.

• The museum hosts monthly storytelling events. The next two will be 10:30 a.m. Feb. 26 and 10:30 a.m. March 19. The events are geared toward children ages 4 to 10.

• The museum has a research library that is open to the public by appointment.

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