African Art

Mask, late 1800s

Unknown Bamun or Bamileke artist, Cameroon

burlap, cotton, bead, wool, wood, and yarn

Native Arts acquisition fund


Sowei Mask , late 1800s

Unknown Mende artist, Sierra Leone


Native Arts acquisition fund


Plaque, 1550-1650

Unknown Benin artist, Nigeria


Native Arts acquisition fund


The royal palace of the oba or king of Benin was adorned with hundreds of elaborately ornamented plaques, such as this one, telling the story of court life. Cast in the lost wax technique by a highly skilled artisan, this plaque has the figure of a court nobleman or possibly a chief showing details of his regalia, including his helmet, an elaborate coral necklace, embroidered skirt, belt, and anklets.

Door Panels, late 1800s

Master of Ikerre, Yoruba culture, Nigeria


Native Arts acquisition fund

1973.357 and 1980.58

In Yoruba culture, important artists such as the Master of Ikerre were commissioned by kings to create large and richly ornamented doors to adorn the entrance to a palace or an important shrine. The high relief carving depicts human and animal forms, from women carrying clay pots or musical instruments to men holding bows, arrows, guns, or flywhisks—and even some riding horseback.

House Post, 1920s

Olowe Ise, Yoruba culture, Nigeria


Funds from 1996 Collector’s Choice and gift of Valerie Franklin


A virtuoso carver, Olowe Ise was known for his technically daring high-relief style and energetic compositions. Kings and wealthy patrons commissioned him to create veranda posts and doors to add beauty and prestige to their homes. The post seen here stands over five feet tall and depicts a warrior seated on a horse, supported by two women and two men.

The warrior is deliberately carved to be larger than his horse to indicate his prominence. The placement of male and female figures beneath and supporting the warrior indicates the sharing of power between the genders that forms the foundation of Yoruba society.

Soliloquy: Life’s Fragile Fictions, 1997

Moyo Ogundipe, Yoruba culture, Nigeria

acrylic on canvas

Joan Evans Anderman Memorial Fund


Contemporary Yoruba artist Moyo Ogundipe draws on a vast storehouse of African and Western imagery for his paintings. Among his inspirations are the house posts carved by Olowe Ise. Traditional African body decoration, birds as symbols of freedom and power, and batik patterns are recurring motifs, but so are creatures from Greek mythology.

Egungun Mask, 1950s

Unknown Yoruba artist, Nigeria

wood, pigment, and cloth

Native Arts acquisition fund and gift of Michael and Patricia Coronel


Egungun Society members honor deceased ancestors by sponsoring and performing annual ceremonies called masquerades. The two faces of this mask represent a rabbit and a human.

Rain Has No Father?, 2008

El Anatsui, Ewe culture, Ghana

copper wire and bottle tops

Funds from Native Arts acquisition fund, U.S. Bank, Richard and Theresa Davis, Douglas Society, Denver Art Museum Volunteer Endowment, Alex Cranberg and Susan Morris, Geta and Janice Asfaw, Saron and Daniel Yohannes, Lee McIntire, Milroy and Sheryl Alexander, Dorothy and Richard Campbell, Wayne Carey and Olivia Thompson, Morris Clark, Rebecca H. Cordes, Kenneth and Rebecca Gart, Tim and Bobbi Hamill, Kalleen and Robert Malone, Meyer and Geri Saltzman, Ann and Gerry Saul, Mary Ellen and Thomas Williams, Nancy and James Williams, Forrest Cason, First Western Trust Bank, Howard and Sandy Gelt, Gene Osborne, Boettcher Foundation, John and Eve Glesne, The Schlegel White Foundation, Jeffrey and Nancy Balter, and Tamara Banks


El Anatsui creates dramatic metallic sculptures that resemble great cloths. Employing a workshop of assistants, small pieces of liquor bottle caps are repurposed through folding and binding to create a surface rich with texture and color. The piece takes on a new unique character each time it is hung as the different folds that are created alter the light and shadow that feature so heavily on its surface. Influences on the creation of this piece include the tradition of kente cloths, the history of international trade between Africa and Europe, and the Rocky Mountains to the west of Denver.

Ngil Mask, late 1800s

Unknown Fang artist, Gabon

native fiber, wood and paint

Gift of Fred H. Riebling


This mask was worn by the Ngil—a secret society banned by French colonial rulers in 1910—during initiations, ceremonies, and processions. The society’s name means “gorilla,” and the masks arched eyebrows and broad, rounded forehead may be meant to model the face of a gorilla. The mask was originally white—a color that the Fang associate with ancestral spirits, death, and male virility.

Bedu Mask, about 1960

Sirikye, Nafana culture, Ivory Coast

wood, paint, and metal

Native Arts acquisition fund


Once a year, dancers don giant masks representing Bedu, an animal spirit that lives in the wilderness. They perform acrobatic dances, model ideal conduct, and chide villagers who have misbehaved during the year. The artist Sirikye defined the look of these masks, which feature large round faces, triangular mouths, and geometric patterns.

Daniel Yohannes Family African Gallery, Level 4, Hamilton Building

The African collection consists of approximately 1,000 objects—older works and new ones by contemporary artists. Focused on the diverse artistic traditions of Africa, it includes rare and exquisite works in sculpture, textiles, jewelry, painting, printmaking and drawings. Although the strength of the collection is west African art, with emphasis on Yoruba works, there are important masterpieces from all regions and mediums of expression including wood, metals, fibers, terra cotta, and mixed media compositions.

This collection tells the stories of Africa from many perspectives. Artworks in the gallery are selected to represent the diversity of creativity in a continent containing thousands of art-producing societies. The gallery tells the stories of individual artists including Olowe Ise and Fernando Alvim, who are the visual chroniclers of their times.

The display also balances works by women artists—including the Akire shrine painters—with those made by men. Through the works of women artists, the gallery explores questions of gender, rituals, and the importance of group creativity in African art. Older works in the collection are juxtaposed with new works by contemporary African artists to highlight cultural continuities, international influences, and variety of themes. Interactive programs demonstrate the link among visual, musical and performance arts in Africa.

African Renaissance: Old Forms, New Images in Yoruba Art. Moyo Okediji. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002.

The African collection is part of the native arts department, which also includes the arts of the indigenous peoples of North America, Africa, and Oceania. In the American Indian, Oceanic art, and African art collections, important modern and contemporary artists are represented; reflecting the continued but evolving artistic practice of indigenous artists and cultures.

Current Staff

  • Nancy Blomberg, Chief Curator and Curator of Native Arts
  • John Lukavic, Associate Curator of Native Arts
  • Eric Berkemeyer, Curatorial Assistant of Native Arts
  • Heather Nielsen, Associate Director of Learning and Engagement

Past Staff

  • Edgar C. McMechan, Curator
  • Frederic H. Douglas, Curator
  • Kate Peck Kent, Assistant Curator
  • Royal B. Hassrick, Curator
  • Norman Feder, Curator
  • Richard Conn, Curator
  • David Irving, Assistant Curator
  • Ryntha Johnson, Assistant Curator
  • Moyo Okediji , Assistant Curator
  • Roger Echo-Hawk, Assistant Curator
  • Polly Nordstrand, Associate Curator