Making Art Accessible

Roslyn Walker plans to extend the African museum into the classroom and send exhibits on the road

"Westerners have been discovering African art for hundreds of years," says Roslyn A. Walker, the energetic director of the National Museum of African Art. "Maybe there's some rediscovery going on, too. In the 1960s many Africans gained independence, and that brought new attention to African culture and art. The Peace Corps brought a lot of young people to Africa, and some of them majored in various areas of African studies. More recently, the President's visit there got people interested again."

And if there was still any question of some not getting the message, her museum will soon take care of that. She is determined to open it up to those who haven't heard yet.

"I want to extend the museum into the larger world. I want our exhibits to relate to people's lives. African art certainly addresses all the events in the human life cycle."

I talked to her in her wonderfully cluttered office. (A huge table is covered with papers: she knows where everything is, but there is one unusual item, an x-ray of an African sculpture. X-rays, I learn, help determine the authenticity and value of objects — whether they've been broken and repaired or the wood has been recarved.) "Do Africans themselves appreciate what the museum has to offer?" I asked.

"African immigrants in the area? Oh yes! Take some of the African taxi drivers, for example."

There are a large number of them, as anyone who has been around Washington knows, and they come here from all over the African continent. "I take a lot of taxis," she said, "and I ask the drivers if they've been to the museum, and I get mixed responses. Some drivers are enthusiastic and some aren't: for some it's a reminder of a past they would rather forget. But others like to celebrate their Africanness. Those are the ones who give me a break on the taxi fare!" she laughed.

Actually, local Africans more or less take over the museum on occasion, and this is what happened last spring when a group of Yoruba immigrants performed a baby-naming ceremony and some 2,000 visitors attended. "It was a visual extravaganza, winding all through the building with dancing and everything. We also have invited the wives of African ambassadors to the museum and encouraged them to bring their children. We want them to consider this a little bit of Africa in the District of Columbia, a home away from home."

Walker plans to set up traveling exhibitions to go with other Smithsonian mobile shows. A display of photographs by Constance Stuart Larrabee, a British-born South African who left a remarkable body of work depicting scenes of life in and around Pretoria and Johannesburg, is slated to become the African museum's first traveling exhibition.

And she wants to service the classrooms with educational products.

"You mean in the Washington area?" I said, like a fool. She gave me a look. "Around the world! Why not? Certainly around the country. I don't mean artifacts, but educational materials — slide kits, CD-ROMs, or whatever current technological mediums can help teachers teach African arts and culture."

Last March in connection with the opening of a major show of sculpture by Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise (c. 1875-1938), the museum had a Family Day, attended by some 3,000 people. For Walker the best thing about it was that people didn't just stray into the building through the underground passageway from the adjoining Sackler Gallery, where heads fail to get counted among the museum's 240,000 annual visitors. They entered through the proper front door: they had intended to come to the African museum in the first place.

"That was the best fun. I'd love to have a family day for every new exhibition. We offered storytelling, dance performances, Yoruba and other African board games, as well as art workshops. After viewing the Yoruba beaded crown on exhibit, for example, visitors made beaded necklaces and other items in the workshops."

The activity room was put to work as never before. Four models showing stages of a sculpture in iroko wood, representing a kneeling female figure by Moses Ajiboye of Nigeria, were set out for people to touch and explore. Visitors often ask about the woods used in many African sculptures, Walker told me, so samples were provided of everything from red oak to pine, enabling people to heft them and note the grain.

"We showed how Yoruba style differs from other ethnic styles, and you could go through and compare Olowe's art with Olowe wannabes. One exercise was to identify a Yoruba sculpture from among a group by artists with similar styles."

One favorite project was to complete, on paper, a sculpted wooden door by Olowe that had been altered, possibly because of damage. What you had to do was imagine what the artist had intended and draw the rest of that door.

During the activities, a tape played of one of Olowe's wives singing a praise poem honoring the artist, and master drummers also provided music during this busy day. On other occasions, African potters and weavers have demonstrated their technique.

"We treated our visitors to a taste experience," she told me. "Chin-chin, cookies made from a sweetened, deep-fried dough that are popular in Nigeria, were served. We asked them to eat only in the pavilion, but of course they wandered around with the food, and we wound up picking up crumbs all over the place."

Like Western art, African art has its roots in religion. But as Walker pointed out, there have always been individual artists whose names were known in their societies. "African art was never anonymous," she said, "it was just that the collectors of art and cultural information rarely asked who made this or that. Often there was the assumption that art-making was a communal process, that everyone in the village was a cocreator.

"But this was not the case. You always had individual master sculptors, artists who had their own ateliers, master carvers with wide-ranging reputations who were summoned from far away to work for this family or that king. The greater their talent, the greater their reputation. Artists weren't confined to one small area but crossed all borders."

Contemporary African art has branched out in new directions as has Western art," Walker reminded me. "In the past, African women pretty much stuck to the traditional media of pottery and fiber or textiles, but now we have Sokari Douglas Camp, a Nigerian woman who sculpts by welding steel." She has some marvelous kinetic sculptures on view in the museum's pavilion. This spring, the museum's Point of View Gallery, which focuses on smaller exhibitions, exploring a few objects or even a single object in innovative ways, will showcase Church Ede, a monumental kinetic sculpture of a funerary bed by Sokari Douglas Camp. Made in honor of her father, it features figures that periodically fan the bed as would attendants to a real Nigerian funerary bed.

Some shows prove once again the extraordinary influence of African art upon the world's other artists. There was a display of furniture by Pierre-Emile Legrain, a French Art Deco master who died in 1929. His wonderful chairs and stools are clearly influenced by work from the Asante of Ghana, and particularly by a wood and brass creation from the Ngombe people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Through May 9, the museum will feature "Baule: African Art/Western Eyes," which contrasts how Western museums present some of Baule's outstanding works with the way the Baule people experience art in their native environment.

I was impressed by a large exhibition, "Images of Power and Identity," which brings us African art south of the Sahara. These masks and figures, mostly of wood but a few of gold and silver, are bursting with vitality. A mwadi mask from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, four feet tall, with a raffia ruff at the base, eyeholes and a great striped fishtail crown, was worn by a diviner to celebrate the new moon. A 19th-century life-size figure of a man from Cameroon, sporting thousands of beads and shells, exudes both power and humor, as does a crocodile headdress with huge spiraling horns.

And this summer, the museum will display some of the most beautiful and creative types of headgear contained in the collection in "Hats Off: A Salute to African Headgear."

The Sylvia H. Williams Gallery, named for the museum's former director and dedicated to contemporary art, will showcase a major concentration of South African art, running from June to September and complementing the South African component of the Folklife Festival on the Mall. The exhibition should bring swarms of visitors into the museum, many of whom perhaps have no idea of the extent and variety of African art.

An upcoming series, "Films from Côte d'Ivoire," will include works by directors from this hub of African filmmaking that have been distinguished at major film festivals around the world. The museum will also offer a special conservation clinic for the public, a film and talk on African art trading, plus performances by dancers and musicians from the Ivory Coast.

Walker, who earned her master's degree and doctorate from Indiana University, has worked with African art most of her 54 years, having long served as senior curator at this, the only museum in the country dedicated exclusively to the collection, conservation, exhibition and study of African art. For seven years before coming here she was director of the Illinois State University Museums at Normal.

Though her father, a Memphis pharmacist, died when she was 6 and her mother when she was 14, she was still raised by relatives. "I did have a family," she said. "My mother's youngest sister, Jim Etta Lee, and her husband, Uncle Robert, raised me. He died when I was in graduate school, but I have been fortunate in having mentors. I've had a lot of support from family, friends, teachers, and scholars and professionals in the museum field."

Early on, at Southern University's Laboratory High School, she thought she might become a journalist but was also interested in painting and the flute. Teachers encouraged her. In fact, one teacher thought so much of Walker's artwork that she saved it. This was the kind of loving help that enabled this talented young person to carry on.

After graduate school she worked at the Nigerian National Museum in Lagos and the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. She is passing along to others the same kind of support that she has had. The museum takes on interns and museum fellows every year. "We mentor them," she said. "We stay in contact with them and try to push them along. We are training another generation of scholars and museum professionals who will continue to help the Western world rediscover Africa's treasures, who will keep Africa on the minds of the public."

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.