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A Collective ‘Vision’ of African Art

Forget the mouse ears. With Walt Disney’s latest contribution to the Smithsonian Institution, it’s all about Cameroon masks — and nearly 90 other works that will be a part of “African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection,” debuting Thursday at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

The works are part of a 525-piece collection, spanning five centuries of African art and representing 20 different countries.

Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Co., purchased the collection from Paul Tishman, a New York real estate developer, in 1984. The Smithsonian received the collection from Disney in 2005, marking the largest sculpture gift in the museum’s history. [IMGCAP(1)]

According to Bryna Freyer, lead curator of the exhibition, when it came to Disney’s decision of which museum should receive the collection in its entirety, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art was an easy choice.

“I think Disney, and Mr. Eisner at Disney, [were] impressed with this museum, because he felt we were reaching out to the public,” Freyer said. “We don’t charge admission, we don’t require you have a Ph.D. in art history to come in the door — [and] that we really are trying to make African art accessible, and they felt that matched the goals of Disney and Mr. Tishman’s goals as well.”

Since Disney’s gifting of the works, pieces of the collection have been featured in various parts of the museum, including the 24-object display “First Look,” which closed in December 2006. Still, as Janice Kaplan, museum spokeswoman for the Disney-Tishman exhibition, points out, this initial installment served to merely “whet people’s appetite” for the styles of art featured in the Tishman collection.

The current exhibition features only a small amount of the entire collection to “allow visitors ample opportunity to walk around pieces as much as possible,” said Christine Mullen Kreamer, who has worked closely with the exhibit, authoring the book “African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman Art Collection” to accompany the exhibit.

Freyer noted that the book and the exhibit serve the joint purpose of educating museum visitors about the collection.

“The book goes into more depth [about] the history of the collection as well as the African art and the importance of the collection in the field … as well as some of the real underlying principles of African art that are shown in the collection,” Freyer said. “The exhibit follows some of the same lines.”

Museumgoers also will have other tools to enhance their visit, including brochures, ambient music and a number of docents to lead tours through the exhibit.

Other highlights of the exhibit include: an unusual 16th-century Bini-Portuguese ivory saltcellar from the Benin Kingdom; a carved hunting horn from Sierra Leone; a collection of Dogon Art from Mali; a Bamana seated figure from Mali measuring more than 5 feet in height; and a number of pieces by renowned Nigerian artists.

The exhibit will run through Sept. 7, 2008, when, per agreement with Disney, at least 60 pieces from the collection will be rotated throughout the Smithsonian Institution.

For the time being, though, the “African Vision” display will serve the purpose of exciting visitors about the newly acquired collection.

“This is our time to work together to identify the key pieces [and to] show this collection to the best advantage, excite our visitors about African art and also to begin to present some new input about the works of art,” Kreamer said.

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