When Carol Thompson, the High Museum’s Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art, contemplates the attention the museum has recently accorded her field — a 60 percent increase in the dedicated space and three concurrent shows — she makes no effort to mask her delight.
“I am thrilled that the original footprint of the Fred and Rita Richman gallery has expanded from 2,400 square feet to 4,000 square feet,” says Thompson, who has curated the High’s African art collection since 2001. “I am thrilled to have been able to present Symmetry/Asymmetry: African Textiles, Dress and Adornment on the Skyway of the Wieland Pavilion. And I’m thrilled that we currently have on view African Mask/Masquerade: More Than Meets the Eye [in the Stent wing], so that people can encounter African art at various points within our vast complex.”
Thompson credits a generous pledge from longtime High patrons Fred and Rita Richman for underwriting the costs of the expansion of the ground-floor gallery bearing their name and many of the 40-some recent acquisitions currently showcased there in African Art: Building the Collection.
Likewise, Thompson acknowledges the ongoing support of New Yorkers Harris and Debrah Feinn, Seattle-based collectors Oliver and Pamela Cobb and the 15 donors who compose Friends of African Art for helping in her effort to build a collection she hopes will “make people from around the world come to Atlanta to see African art.”
Thompson’s scholarship is arguably her greatest calling card. Guido Gryseel, director general of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, attributed his nearly unprecedented decision to loan Kakuungu, the two-foot-tall Suku mask from the Congo that is the centerpiece of African Mask/Masquerade, because he admires Thompson’s “scientific knowledge and caliber of experience.” “[It is] a tribute to Carol and to the excellence of the High,” says Gryseel.
But her enthusiasm, according to Oliver Cobb, is what endears her to the dealers, collectors and curators with whom Thompson has cultivated decades-long relationships.
“Pamela and I are very respectful of Carol’s taste, aesthetic sense and savvy as it relates to auction prices,” explains Cobb, who gave the High a Kota reliquary guardian figure. “But unlike too many curators who are scholars, Carol is actually out there in the trenches establishing rapport with dealers around the country . . . and that’s really unique.”
Building a world-class collection of any kind is a daunting challenge. But the task is even more formidable given the traumatic history of interactions between the West and Africa. From the acceleration of the slave trade in 1482 to its decline in the 19th century; from the widespread Western-entangled despotism of the postcolonial years to Boko Haram and the current Ebola plague, so much of the news about Africa is negative. As a result, Thompson says, many people have shunned all things African.
In addition, Westerners do not see Africans as their equals, regardless of lip service to the contrary. If people cannot recognize the humanity or culture of Africans, they won’t be interested in anything that comes from the continent. Thompson believes that many stereotypes about Africa can be dispelled through a better understanding of African art.
The exhibition of new acquisitions reflects her insistence on diversifying the High’s collection in terms of chronology, geography, materials and object types. The more kinds of art and artifacts from Africa that people are exposed to, the more they can learn about African cultures and civilizations — both past and present.
“I want the collection to appeal to connoisseurs, but also to a broad public which may know nothing about African art,” she says.
Among masks and figurative sculptures, which Thompson calls “the heart and soul of African art,” are equally distinctive examples of textiles, beadwork, metalwork, works on paper and ceramics. The collection also encompasses objects from royal courts, religious practice and everyday life.
The eclectic mix includes a rare 19th-century Kongo scepter, an impressive shrine sculpture of Mami Wata carved in Nigeria and a monumental “metal cloth” wall-hanging by Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, acquired in 2006 before he skyrocketed to international art stardom.
Yet, as Thompson reminds visitors, “Things that are small and humble can be sublime art objects.”
Thus, a demure ivory rattle (ca. 15th–16th century) from Owo, a West African city famous for its ivory carvers, sits catty-corner to a formidable Fang Female Reliquary figure (ca. late 19th century) from Gabon, a gift from the Feinns that Thompson calls one of her proudest acquisitions. True to her point, a diminutive Zulu snuff spoon/comb hair ornament (ca. 19th century) holds its own opposite Bus Ride (1996), a dramatic, large-scale paper construction by South African artist Kay Hassan.
Thompson applauds colleagues who are eager to add African works to their collections. Michael Rooks, curator of modern and contemporary art, recently acquired Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) by Ethiopian-born American Julie Mehretu, and Atlanta-based mixed-media artist Radcliffe Bailey’s From East to West, From North to South. (Both are on view.) Photography curator Brett Abbott is also interested in adding works by African artists to the collections.
The curators’ collaborative spirit is appropriate given the universality of African art, Bailey says. “As artists, we’re always trying to figure out new ways to do things. But when I look at African art, I understand that no matter how new someone’s expression might be — it’s already been done.”
Gallery talk with the curator, 7 p.m. September 26.
Thompson will be conducting tours of Kongo Across the Water at the Carter Center museum on August 12, 14, 27 and September 7.