- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

The stunning traditional African beaded crown, masks and figures of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art’s “First Look: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection” are inspiring.

Once you try this succulent “appetizer” of 23 woods-metals-ivories-ceramics-fibers-and-beadwork artworks, it will be hard to wait for the later, even more delectable, inaugural exhibition “dinner” of 80 more artworks next February.

Last year’s Walt Disney World Co.’s gift of the 525-object collection, currently valued between $2 million and $5 million, thrust the Smithsonian museum into a major player role in the traditional African arts field for years to come.

Inevitably, the total collection, and this exhibit, reflect original collectors Ruth and Paul Tishman’s taste for powerful and colorful African art objects reflecting the range of Africa’s major tribes such as the Benin and Yoruba, both from present-day Nigeria. They also favored treasures from Sierra Leone, Mali and the Cote d’Ivoire.

It was in the 1950s that the Tishmans began collecting, and two of these first pieces grace the show: One is the exquisitely carved ivory Benin female figure that’s clearly the exhibit’s star.

The court artist who created this astonishing woman — probably an attendant to a queen — delicately carved detailed simulations of coral beads and decorations into her body.

For the next 20 years, the Tishmans moved on to what can be called “big statements,” as with the over-lifesized, wood-and-paint Nafana peoples’ mask at the exhibit’s entrance.

“New masks, called ‘bedu,’ appeared in the 1930s,” museum curator Bryna Freyer says.

“These were used every night right after the harvest for performances where women could plead for having children or curing of a sick child,” she adds.

Some of these power instruments were masks, and the show is shiningly replete with them. A particularly fascinating, smaller mask, perhaps made by the Boki peoples of the Nigerian Cross River region, shows the Tishmans’ continued love of color.

Designed to sit atop a man’s head, it is painted with vegetable and earthen pigments with red clay smeared across the surface. The harshly carved bush cow horns and naturalistic, highly expressionistic, scarified human face makes the work all the more scary.

Nearby, a Nigerian Yoruba veranda post — extraordinary for its color and rare, incised body patterns — shows a man sitting on the remains of what was once a horse.

At one time, the post served as one of 12 supports surrounding a royal palace courtyard before the town of Idanre was relocated.

And there’s much more, especially the large number of significant masks that dominate the show.

Don’t miss the four together in a wall-hung vitrine. One delicate, Gabon mask is unusual for its blackness — the white, harmoniously designed curved eyebrows, eyes and mouth are incised into black wood.

Although the ivory Benin queen attendant is the show’s standout, the Yoruba beaded crown is clearly the exhibit’s crown.

Moreover, its hundreds of beads glisten orange, mauve and green. Designed as what Miss Freyer describes as a “state occasion crown,” its wickerlike, cloth-covered, bead-decorated basket fit over a king’s head for ceremonies similar to those of Queen Elizabeth II’s opening of the British Parliament.

This taste of the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection is an excellent preview of things to come. It will be hard to wait for the rest of this collection to arrive.

WHAT: “First Look: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection”

WHERE: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 950 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Dec. 3

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

ONLINE: africa.si.edu

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