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African Beaded Art: Power and Adornment

Major New Exhibition Opens at Museum of Art Feb. 1

Excerpted from a Museum of Art press release.

The Smith College Museum of Art is pleased to announce the opening of African Beaded Art: Power and Adornment, an exhibition of exquisite beaded art from West, Central, and Southeast Africa, February 1 through June 15, 2008. SCMA is the sole venue for this exhibition, organized by guest curator John Pemberton, III.  

Pemberton, who is professor emeritus at Amherst College and curatorial consultant for African art at SCMA, was one of the first scholars to recognize and study beaded objects as works of art, rather than as craft. Although his research since 1970 has focused on the religion and art of the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria and Benin, he has traveled to a wide range of countries in central and western Africa, and over the past decade has become increasingly interested in cross-cultural study. Glass beads arrived in Africa from Europe, and to a lesser extent India, as early as the 16th and 17th centuries, but they didn’t become widely available until the 19th and 20th centuries, the period from which the works in this exhibition are drawn.

African Beaded Art features nearly 150 works, including apparel and furniture for kings and rulers, clothing and costumes for dancers and ritual use, necklaces, sculpture, tools, vessels, and a diverse assortment of objects with many functions. One of the first to survey beaded art work across a spectrum of African cultures, this exhibition is divided into five sections: Nigeria/Yoruba; the Cameroon Grasslands of West Africa; the Kasai region in Central Africa; and the Southeastern Cape region of South Africa. 

Two free public programs will mark the opening of African Beaded Art. On Friday, Feb. 1, at 5:30 p.m., Professor Pemberton will present a one-hour slide talk in Stoddard Hall (Elm Street across from the Museum). No reservations are necessary.  The Museum and Museum Shop will remain open until 5:30 p.m. on February 1; Museum admission will be waived from 4-5:30 p.m. On Friday, February 8 (snow date February 9), the Museum will host a free Second Friday Party from 4 to 9 p.m. featuring a Family African Dance Demo and Workshop from 4-5 p.m. (with Smith College students, led by the Bamidele Dancers and Drummers of Western Mass.).  The highlight of the evening will be a free live performance by the funky, young Afro beat band NOMO, an 8-member group from Ann Arbor, Mich. The band will play two sets from 7-8:45 p.m. Other Second Friday Party programming will include the chance to visit the Museum’s Cunningham Center (featuring the Museum’s collection of works on paper) from 4-6 p.m., and a “Meet and Greet” with John Pemberton from 5-6:30 p.m. Sam’s Café will cater light refreshments in the Atrium from 5-6:30 p.m. This event is entirely free; all ages welcome. No reservations necessary.

Also in conjunction with African Beaded Art, the Museum will host “Just BEAD It! Free Family Day @ SCMA” on Saturday, March 29.

Major lenders to African Beaded Art include the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City), The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.), the Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago), the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Dallas Museum of Art. In addition, 20 private collectors loaned objects, and SCMA contributed one object from its collection: a Yoruba crown.

Major funding for the exhibition was provided by the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne, The National Endowment for the Arts, the Mellon Foundation, and the Tryon Associates of the Museum.  Additional funding has been provided by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

A 200-page, full-color catalogue by John Pemberton, III accompanies the exhibition and is available at the SCMA Museum Shop ($36 Museum Members; $40 Non-members).

Visit for a complete listing of exhibitions and programs.

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