Smithsonian Collection Celebrates Historic African Art

African Mosaic, the newest exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art, includes modern and contemporary, popular and traditional works. Host Michel Martin speaks with Johnnetta Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art, about the collection as well as her first year at the helm.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we'd like to tell you about a collection of artwork set to debut tomorrow at the National Museum of African Art; that is a branch of the Smithsonian Institution. It's called African Mosaic, and curators have spent the last decade acquiring more than 100 pieces, which are going on display. Everything from traditional African masks and sculptures to jewelry and even fantasy coffins are featured. We actually toured the National Museum of African Art for an advanced look at the collection.

But here to tell us how it came together, and why it matters, is Johnetta Cole. She served as director of the Museum of African Art for the past year. Now, of course, you might know her for her work in academia. She has served as president both of Bennett College for Women and Spelman College. Those are the only two historically black colleges for women in the country. She has headed them both. And she is with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. JOHNETTA COLE (Former Director, National Museum of African Art): Thank you, Michel. It's a joy to be here with you.

MARTIN: Now, this is the first collection that's come together under your watch, so congratulations.

Ms. COLE: That is true. But of course, our museum was there long before I arrived, and I just would like to think that we - not I - we are helping that museum to get better and better.

MARTIN: Now, when you welcome people to the museum, I have observed that you've started saying to them, welcome home.

Ms. COLE: But of course.

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

Ms. COLE: Because it doesn't matter who our visitors are. If they're from the United States; if they're from some other part of the world; if they are African-American; if they're women, men - it doesn't matter. Because we collect and care for and present, and - I hope - teach about art that comes from the only place in the world that is the cradle of humanity. So all you have to do is just go back far enough, and each and every one of us is an African.

MARTIN: Wow. Thank you for that invitation. We don't have time to talk about all of the pieces that will be presented in the collection. I do want to mention that we will have a piece on our website from one of the curators and also, we will be showcasing a few of the pieces. You can see pictures of some of the pieces that will be presented. Just go to NPR.org. Click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

But I would like to ask you to tell us about just a couple of the pieces, to give people a sense of what they will see if they go and see the collection. The one piece that you have to tell us about is by Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow. And it is an enormous sculpture.

Dr. COLE: It is a stunning and totally inspiring work. "Toussaint Louverture," this 7-foot figure, is lifting up an enslaved woman. And so an African artist about a diaspora iconic figure addressing a worldwide value; it's called freedom.

MARTIN: It's a really amazing piece. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it, particularly something that up close. And can you just tell us a little bit about the artist? It's my understanding that he is trained in anatomy, but he was not formerly trained in the arts.

Dr. COLE: He actually had a career as a physical therapist. And so Ousmane Sow knows the human body. But that knowledge is not enough because it's that knowledge combined with his complete passion for helping each of us, I think, in some way or another see through that work who we are.

MARTIN: How is this collection organized? As we said, Africa is a huge place. There are 53 countries, and hundreds of distinct languages and cultures. How did you possibly choose? Or how - I know you didn't choose them personally.

Dr. COLE: First - no.

MARTIN: But how are the pieces possibly chosen?

Dr. COLE: I have to do a shout-out for our three curators. The choices were made around themes - wanting, of course, to present as much diversity, wanting to make sure that our visitors remember every work of art was at one point contemporary. And so we wanted to make sure that our audiences, our visitors would have that sense of a timeline.

MARTIN: What do you think the biggest misconception is that many people will have about African art?

Dr. COLE: That it is like Africa's people: primitive; that it is not well-crafted; that it comes out of some basic human notion when of course, the contrary. Like all peoples, African artists do create exquisite works. They may be about values, loyalty, hard work, ideal notions of womanhood. And so we have to get rid of these old notions and - I must say - often racist notions about Africa, her people, her arts and her culture.

MARTIN: One of the pieces, I have to say, caught our eye, were the fantasy coffins.

Dr. COLE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Would you just tell us a little bit about that? And I'm smiling because obviously, people are - you know, sad as death is a transition; all of us go through it at some point. But these coffins are amazing.

Dr. COLE: Oh, and they do tickle the heart. We're very fortunate to have several in our museum. In this exhibition there are two: the elephant coffin, but I bet your favorite was the cell phone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: The cell phone was quite a favorite.

Dr. COLE: And think what this teaches us. You know, we want our visitors to raise their own questions. But some questions are obvious. Like, isn't it the case that cell phones in Africa are now incredibly important instruments for communication?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Johnetta Cole. She is the director of the National Museum of African Art. It's a branch of the Smithsonian Institution; a new exhibition showcasing 10 years of works in the museum's collection is opening this weekend. And we're talking to her about it. I do want to spend a couple more minutes, in the time we have left, talking a little bit about you.

I mentioned - and many people will know you from your work in the academy as the leader of these two very important institutions. And I was curious about why you decided to take this step at this stage of your life, when I'm sure you could be forgiven if you just wanted to sit on somebody's porch and drink some lemonade.

Dr. COLE: You know, Michel, it is my third F minus in retirement. But how could I not want to come to the National Museum of African Art? Because it is a place that allows me to continue to feel the power of education. And then, secondly, I'm an anthropologist. I have been interested in, respectful of, passionate about the art of Africa.

MARTIN: What do you hope people will draw from their visit to this particular exhibition - and as your tenure continues?

Dr. COLE: I hope that this exhibition says the visual arts of Africa are unbelievably dynamic, inspiring, beautiful and instructive.

MARTIN: I have to put you on the spot. Do you have a favorite piece?

Dr. COLE: Of course I do. My favorite piece tends to be almost the last piece we acquired. But it is the Ousmane Sow "Toussaint Louverture." And when we remember that Toussaint Louverture left us this notion of freedom from slavery, but left us so little of himself. We have his signature; we have no portraits of Toussaint Louverture. And the French who tried to capture him often used very racist notions and made him almost ape-like. And so to have Ousmane Sow present us with the full strength and dignity and insistence on freedom of Toussaint Louverture, how could it not be my favorite?

MARTIN: Johnetta Cole is director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art. It's set to showcase the new exhibition "African Mosaic," starting this weekend. She was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studio to tell us more about it. And as we mentioned, if you want to see some of the pieces that we've been talking about, if you want more information about the exhibition, and to read a blog by one of the curators, please go to the program page of NPR.org, and select TELL ME MORE.

Dr. Cole, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. COLE: Oh, thank you for letting me tell you a little bit more.

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