“Artful Animals” Opens at National Museum of African Art

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Bryna Freyer's biggest problem with Disney's 1994 film, The Lion King, was the lack of people. Sure, the animals could talk, but to Freyer, the film seemed to perpetuate the stereotype that Africa is a giant animal-filled savanah.

"Artful Animals," a family-friendly exhibition opening today at the National Museum of African Art, examines how African artists create cultural objects inspired by domestic and untamed animals.

Freyer, who curated the exhibit, selected 130 works from the museum's collections that would appeal to younger audiences—including a toy turtle made from a gourd, a mask in the shape of a hippo, and teddy bears made of mohair. To see ten of the artifacts on display in the show, check out this photo gallery.

Freyer wants visitors to realize that both Africans and Americans assign human-like characteristics to animals. Each culture's values are exhibited in the way it represents animals. "How did we come up with dirty dogs, greedy pigs and sly foxes?" she says. In Africa, emblems for royal tribes rarely contain lions, a Western symbol of nobility and leadership. In the course of assembling the exhibit, Freyer even pondered the representations of animal mascots for sports teams, political parties as well as cartoon brands like Sonic the Hedgehog and Arthur the Aardvark. "He doesn't even look like an aardvark! And hedgehogs don't really move very fast...," she notes.

And the portrayal of the snake as vicious or threatening is a Western ideal, Freyer says. Africans emphasize the snake's patience as it waits on a path for a bird or small rodent to come along. Not to mention that a snake, like the gaboon viper of South-Saharan Africa, shows good judgment, in that it won't bother people unless provoked. "They think these are qualities that a person, especially a ruler, should posses," Freyer says.

Through a Smithsonian-wide partnership with the National Zoo, the National Postal Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Discovery Theater, "Artful Animals" will present African animals not only as works of art, but also the show will explore animals and their motifs through the lens of anthropology, history, science and the performing arts.

The National Zoo, for example, has produced an array of signs that identify zoo animals represented in the African Art museum's show, like the gaboon viper. In addition, The National Postal Museum will highlight stamps from its international collection designed with African animals. The National Museum of Natural History, home to the largest African elephant on display, has developed activity carts on communication and elephants. Discovery Theater adds performances, dance and storytelling to the mix.

The celebration of "Artful Animals" will continue through February 21, 2010.

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