June 20, 2011

The Art Institute of Chicago has opened its expanded new galleries of African art and Indian art of the Americas

The Art Institute of Chicago recently (June 3, 2011) opened its expanded galleries of African art and Indian art of the Americas. Following an extensive four-year planning, construction, and reinstallation project, the combined 7,500 square foot gallery spaces—located in the Art Institute’s lower Morton Wing (G136 and G137)—have now been freshly conceived and completely renovated to accommodate more than 550 objects on display. For the first time in the museum’s history, the majority of the Art Institute’s superb collection of African art and Indian art of the Americas can finally be seen in cohesive presentations that are impressive and enlightening.

Art Institute of Chicago's new African Art gallery 
Art Institute of Chicago: Digital gallery rendering, African art gallery. Copyright © 2011 wHY Architecture
“ The new galleries of African art and Indian art of the Americas will be a revelation to visitors,” said James Cuno, President and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute. “Our collections are extraordinary; only a small fraction have ever been seen. They will now be shown in their true glory. A great deal of time, effort, research, and creativity went into conceptualizing these state-of-the-art installations. Viewers will find them unlike any of our other galleries, and they will be at the forefront of professional practices for years to come. We are really looking forward to seeing our visitors experience these galleries and these collections. We believe their patience will be well rewarded. ”
Seeking a unique approach to displaying African art and Indian art of the Americas, the Art Institute commissioned wHY Architecture and Planning—the California-based architectural firm responsible for the museum’s renovated galleries for prints and drawings, European decorative arts, and Japanese art—to create a unified set of galleries that present an exciting range of forms and materials. The new galleries, with expanded installation space, allow visitors to view never-beforeseen works of art, as well as familiar favorites, in a new light. Upon entering, visitors will notice vibrant wall graphics, harmonious lighting, and specially designed display cases lining the walls. Some of these cases extend into the center of the room, or stand freely in the space, creating “gateways” filled with art works. Viewers will thus feel they are stepping into the displays, forming an interactive relationship with the art.

Art Institute of Chicago: Digital gallery rendering, Indian art of the Americas gallery
Digital gallery rendering, Indian art of the Americas gallery. Copyright © 2011 wHY Architecture

The galleries also feature new interpretive materials, including maps and a comparative timeline. Additionally, for the first time in a permanent installation at the Art Institute, both galleries also feature original video presentations that are designed to complement the works of art on display. The videos play for approximately two to three minutes and then disappear completely for four or five minutes—leaving no shadow on the wall—before the next sequence begins. Richard Townsend, Chairman of the Department of African Art and Indian Art of the Americas and curator of Indian art of the Americas, has conceptualized a video display that combines a concise and poetic narrative with visually striking images of works of art, archaeological sites, landscapes, and seasonal phenomena to convey significant, overarching themes. Kathleen Bickford Berzock, curator of African art, commissioned three original video presentations by Susan Vogel, edited by Harry Kafka. Working closely together, Berzock and Vogel selected three themes that broadly represent important areas, art forms, and concepts related to the collection. The presentations use a three-channel triptych format that suggests contrasts and connections, and shows multiple aspects of a given work. It also permits a playful, almost musical use of imagery, bringing the texture of daily life into the gallery. Each sequence interweaves images of works of art in the museum’s collection and the museum context itself into its theme. Footage for the videos was shot by Susan Vogel, Prince Street Pictures, and by the late Robert Rubin. 

The new installations highlight a significantly broader selection of artworks than previously seen and showcase examples of the culturally and visually varied fields of African art and Indian art of the Americas. The Art Institute’s African art collection includes sculpture, masks, household and personal adornment objects, and regalia from across the continent. While the core of the collection features sculpture from West and Central Africa, acquisitions over the past 20 years bring attention to important artistic traditions from eastern, northern, and southern Africa. In the greatly expanded African art gallery, sculptural works of art are presented in the round, with African textiles displayed on a rotating basis in two locations. The museum’s holdings of Indian art of the Americas span more than 4,000 years and include outstanding works from across the United States as well as ancient Mesoamerica and the Andean countries of South America. Ceramics, basketry, textiles, stone sculpture, metalwork, painting, and beadwork present a remarkable picture of the indigenous artistic heritage and deep-seated patterns of thought and ritual performance throughout the region. Both collections have been reinterpreted for the new galleries in compelling ways.

As part of the inaugural installation of the new galleries of African art and Indian art of the Americas, a fantastic selection of special loans will be on view throughout the year. One of the treasures on loan is a richly worked textile woven from the golden threads of the Golden Orb spider (Nephila Madagascariensis) of Madagascar. Made with the silk of over 1,000,000 spiders, this dazzling brocaded cloth is the only one of its kind in the world. Harvesting spider silk with a team of 80 people for almost five years, Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley created this unique spider silk textile, weaving it in the elaborate textured patterns of a lamba akotyfahana, a 19th-century luxury textile of Madagascar’s Merina nobility. Completed in 2008, this stunning spider silk textile will be on view at the museum through October 2011.

Golden spider silk textile from Madagascar (detail). Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Another masterpiece on loan to the Art Institute is a one-of-a-kind, eagle-feather headdress from the Northern Plains. Identified as regalia of a headman of the Northern Cheyenne (Tsistsisas) people, this headdress has been attributed by scholars and traditional experts to the Crazy Dog Society (Hotam’-imassa’u), one of the six warrior bands of the Northern Cheyenne. This particular object—made of buffalo hides and arrayed with the tail feathers of the bald eagle, great horned owl, black-billed magpie, and immature golden eagle—is unusual in featuring pronghorn antelope horns on either side of the cap, unlike the much more typical use of split buffalo horns. The Crazy Dog headdress was acquired and preserved by descendants of family members of a cattle drover who was killed evidently by Cheyenne and Lakota warriors in eastern Wyoming Territory in 1872. The Northern Cheyenne headdress has been loaned to the Art Institute in honor of the unknown native artists. The unveiling of the new galleries of African art and Indian art of the Americas represents a milestone in the most ambitious renovation and reinstallation project in the Art Institute’s history.

Art Institute of Chicago
Museum's website: www.artic.edu