The Museum for African Art in New York is marking the opening of its new, temporary home with an exhibit on masks and the cultures and traditions they represent. The museum has moved from Manhattan to an area in the New York borough of Queens that is becoming a new arts center outside the heart of New York City.
The Museum for African Art's mission is to increase public understanding and appreciation of African art and culture. The museum's inaugural exhibition in its new space, called Facing the Mask, is an overview of the ancient and popular art of African mask-making. The exhibit asks two questions: What is the function of masks? And, What connects them aesthetically?
Curator Frank Herreman says the exhibit is a celebration of both Africa's past and its present. "Masks were used initially as supernatural weapons to protect communities against enemies," he said. "There was an uprising by the Pende people against the Belgian colonials, so the Belgians sent the police there. They came out with the mask to protect them, and they unfortunately discovered that the mask did not protect them. So, what happened is, they're still dancing the mask, but it's not a supernatural weapon anymore. It's an entertainment mask now. "
Mr. Herreman says the Museum for African Art in New York and the government-sponsored National Museum of African Art in Washington DC, are the only museums in the United States focused solely on art from Africa. "We are dealing with such a large continent, and it is so undervalued, underestimated, " said Frank Herreman. "We want to show that people from that continent are people with incredible creative talent potential. I firmly believe there should be more museums for African art in the world, because it is such a major continent. It has created such wonderful things."
The museum frequently puts its collections on tour. Since it opened nearly 20 years ago, museum exhibitions have traveled to over 70 national and international museums.
In moving to Long Island City, Queens, a neighborhood just across the river from Manhattan, the Museum for African Art is becoming part of an increasingly vibrant art community. It shares the neighborhood with the PS 1 Contemporary Art Center and the Socrates Sculpture Park. It shares the building where it is not housed with the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. It is just around the corner from the Museum of Modern Art, or MOMA, which made Queens its temporary home earlier this year, while its building in midtown Manhattan is renovated.
Elsie McCabe, president of the Museum of African Art, says that MOMA paved the way for her museum's move, and makes a great neighbor. "MOMA made it easier, because MOMA has added significantly to that critical cultural mass, as I call it, and the creative energy here," she said. "MOMA brings more of their audience - the modernists - here as well."
The Museum for African Art's new home is in a warehouse-type space, designed by architect Yolande Daniels. She says designing a space for a museum for African art presents a special challenge, a challenge she decided to meet with understatement. "One of the major concerns was about the identity of the museum, and how that would inflect the space and the architecture," she said. "At a certain level, the spaces are somewhat generic. The architecture then ends up being in contrast to the objects, but I think the objects stand out and are highlighted by it."
Ms. Daniels is also designing the museum's future, permanent home on New York's "Museum Mile," a stretch of museums along Manhattan's 5th Avenue. That move is expected by early 2006.