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Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection Makes Anticipated Debut

For a long time, the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection existed as a kind of tantalizing rumor in the sense that few people had the opportunity to fully see this extensive gathering of African art.

The collection is the brainchild of Paul Tishman and his wife Ruth, wealthy New York real estate developers who began collecting African art—mostly sculptures, figures and masks—in the 1950s, continuing their endeavor for more than 20 years. The Tishmans had taste and knew what they wanted. They were devoted to and passionate about African art and concentrated on large, often complicated and layered works that required something more than a fleeting glance and reflected the diversity of African art.

In the end, the collection evolved to more than 525 objects, made from all sorts of materials including wood, ivory, metal, ceramic, fiber and even, in one instance, spider-web threads. The collection eventually wound up representing 75 ethnic groups and 20 African countries, amounting to a kind of showcase of Africa, its peoples and history.

In the end, the Tishmans—who died in the 1990s—sold their collection to the Walt Disney Co. in 1984, and parts of the collection would make their way via museum loans, traveling shows and the like throughout the world over the next two decades. It wasn’t so much a secret as a vast collection that few people had seen in its entirety, although articles and books about the collection or aspects of it were produced.

Now, the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection has found a home. In 2005, the Disney Corp. donated the entire collection to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, an event that elevated the museum to much greater heights in one fell swoop. Sharon F. Patton, the museum’s director, called the donation nothing less than the “ushering of a new era…. In some ways this is the coming-out party for this highly revered collection.”

The first evidence of the importance and grandeur of this collection can now be seen at the museum with the debut of “African Vision,” which includes 88 works from the 525-piece collection. In a large two-room show, the exhibition shows off the curatorial imagination that went into play in presenting this first real taste of the collection’s riches. (There was also a small “First Look” preview offered last fall.)

This exhibition is deep in artwork and resplendent in the spirit of the people who created it, because everything in the display operates on at least two, sometimes three levels. There is the work itself—be it a mask, naturalist sculpture or ornament, which exists at the level of art. Specifically, this “folk” or “ethnic” art bears the stamp of the creator even if, almost always, there is no individual name attached to the work. These are haunting, striking works, displayed in a virtuoso, dramatic way in a space that leaves plenty of room in which to be affected by the art.

On another level, these pieces also hold tremendous symbolic, metaphoric and even spiritual power—a power that functioned for both its creators and their audiences. Think of the artwork in the same way that Christian iconography might have impacted followers in medieval and renaissance Europe.

In a way, this exhibition becomes a kind of portal for which you should really have your passport stamped. You’re all but invited to spend some time in the company of masks and figures that truly require an overnight stay to complete the experience of appreciation.

Short of that, you should at least see the collection more than once to fully absorb it. The section on masks in particular is not only eclectic but offers complicated ideas about the functions and layers of masks. This also happens with many of the sculptures, which upon second and third looks, feature added imagery on the front and back that might be missed by a quick run-through.

Other magical, beautiful pieces include a hunting horn going back to the 15th century, as well as wooden sculptures that echo Native American tradition and a two-sided mask with birds perched on the head from the Idoma people of Nigeria.

Many of the oldest works have the curious effect of seeming to be modern—fiercely minimalist in their decorative aspects. Just as Asian art influenced many European painters, you can also see that type of influence here, where Joan Miró might have gotten his simple, powerful eyes and lines from African inspiration.

You also get an idea of Africa—not the clichés, but its size and diversity. This artwork is rural, urban, modern, old, sophisticated, primitive, lovely and fierce all at once. You can see the imprints of colonialism, but also how it was absorbed at gut level. You see not just color, but shades of colors and pigments used in the works and seen among the gradations across the land.

It’s not easy to encompass, or even be comprehensive about this collection, which will be further revealed by the museum over time. Try to imagine for a moment, what you might get from an exhibition of European art that includes all points east, north, south and west—now imagine doing that for the cradle of civilization.

African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection through Sept. 7 National Museum of African Art 950 Independence Ave., SW For more information, please call (202) 633-4600 or visit http://africa.si.edu.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.