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Smithsonian Salutes Contemporary African Art

More than 60 works of art from the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art's permanent collection—representing the strength and diversity of contemporary art in Africa and its diaspora—are on view in a new exhibition in Washington, D.C.

Encounters with the Contemporary—the museum's first survey of its contemporary African collection—presents selections from the museum's growing contemporary collection from across Africa and an array of historical styles and media.

The exhibit "represents a new beginning for the National Museum of African Art," says exhibit curator Elizabeth Harney. "It is a reminder of where we have been and a preview of things to come."

"Best of the Best"

The exhibition showcases drawings, paintings, sculptures, weavings, ceramics, and mixed media works by 32 of the "best of the best" artists, says Harney. She plans to exhibit new works every four months as the exhibition continues through 2001.

"The exhibition draws attention to not only the rich history and continuing vitality of modernist artistic practice on the continent," says museum director Roslyn Walker, "but also to the history of the museum's collection and its future commitments to contemporary arts."

While many of the artists featured in the exhibit live and work in Africa, others belong to a large, constantly shifting and growing diaspora: African people who have left the countries of their birth. Some pioneers of contemporary African art—like Ethiopian Alexander Boghossian and Mohammad Khalil from Sudan—trained and traveled abroad in the 1950s and now live in the United States.

African Heritage Artistry

"While these artists embrace the artistry of their African heritage," says Harney, "many express a new identity born of exile or the immigrant experience where the international artistic currents have as much influence upon their works as the traditional methods and techniques of their African ancestors." Other artists represent a second or third generation trained in Africa's national art schools and received their graduate degrees abroad. Still others were born to African parents living in London, Paris, and New York.

Many of the artists are well-traveled, well-educated, and knowledgeable about global artistic expressions, says Harney.

Opened in 1987, the National Museum of African Art is one of only a few U.S. museums charged with collecting contemporary African art. It is the only U.S. museum with a permanent gallery space devoted to exhibiting contemporary African art.

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