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African Art

The Saint Louis Art Museum began collecting African art in 1936, when very few American art museums were doing so. The Museum's first acquisition in this area was a distinguished Benin bronze head. This initial purchase was reinforced during the 1940s by additional purchases of Central and West African art, such as a Fang reliquary figure, Yaka headrest, Widekum mask, and Chokwe chief's chair. Since those early years, the African art collection has grown to include over 1,200 works. More than half the collection is comprised of gifts and bequests from St. Louis businessman and philanthropist Morton D. May (1914-1983). Some highlights from Mr. May's contributions include a Kuba helmet mask, Songye power figure, and Yaka mask.

The collection demonstrates the diversity of artistic expression from across the African continent through an array of genres including masks, figural sculpture, miniatures and adornments in metal, ceramic figures and vessels, and textiles. Some highlights include: a Ligbi mask, Igbo female mask, Fon bocio figure, Yungur effigy pot, and Mende display cloth. Art from West Africa is well represented, with special depth in Yoruba art from southwestern Nigeria, for example: a mother and child figurededicated to the Yoruba god Shango, a double mask for the Gelede Society, and several Egungun masquerade costumes.

Although rich with objects from the 19th and 20th centuries, the collection features chronological depth. The oldest sub-Saharan work is the Nok terracotta head (500BC-200AD). The Museum's collections include works by contemporary African artists, such as El Anatsui, Julie Mehretu, and Seydou Keita.