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Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas

Nearly 1,600 objects from Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas are on view in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. They span 3,000 years, three continents, and many islands, and represent a rich diversity of cultural traditions.

Highlights of the collection include works from the Court of Benin in Nigeria and sculpture from West and Central Africa; wood sculpture from New Guinea and the island groups of Melanesia and Polynesia; and gold, ceramic, and stone objects from the Precolumbian cultures of Mexico and Central and South America. These collections are of varied materials and types, and range from ritual sculpture to gold and silver ornaments, costumes and textiles, impressive ceremonial figures, and monuments of wood and stone.

Although The Metropolitan Museum of Art made its first acquisitions among these fields – a group of Peruvian antiquities – as early as 1882, no significant commitment to the arts of Africa, Oceania, or the Americas was made until 1969. At that time, Nelson A. Rockefeller offered the entire collection of a museum that he had founded in 1954, the Museum of Primitive Art, to the Metropolitan Museum. Included in the gift were 3,300 works of art, a specialized library, and a photographic archive. A separate department for the care, study, and exhibition of these works and study materials was then established at the Metropolitan.

Today the collections of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas are housed in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, named for Nelson Rockefeller's son, who collected many of the Asmat objects from Irian Jaya, western New Guinea, that are now in the Museum. Among the most spectacular objects in the wing are the nine 15-foot-high Asmat memorial poles (bis) collected by Michael Rockefeller in the early 1960s. The Rockefeller Wing opened to the public in February 1982 and houses 40,000 square feet of exhibition space as well as an office mezzanine with art storerooms, a photograph archive, and the Robert Goldwater Library.

The African collections of the department consist of works representative of the artistic traditions of sub-Saharan Africa's diverse cultures. Major geographic areas are included, from the western Sudan south and east through central and southern Africa. The works range from refined Afro-Portuguese ivories of the 15th century to the formally powerful Fang reliquary figures that appealed to early-20th-century artists such as Jacob Epstein and André Derain. Many works were created to compliment the rank and prestige of regional leaders while others indicated the collective status of initiates invested with specific social responsibilities. Some served as devotional artifacts created to pay homage to ancestral forces. In addition to figurative sculpture and masks in wood from western and central Africa that are emphasized in the collections, works that enhance the status of their owners – architectural sculpture, seats of leadership, staffs of office, ceremonial vessels, and personal ornaments feature prominently as well. While wood is the primary media, stone, terracotta, gold, silver, and ivory works are also present, as are textiles and beadwork.

The Oceanic collection includes works from the Pacific Islands, encompassing the archipelagos of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, as well as Australia and the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia. Covering more than a third of the earth's surface, Oceania is home to more than a thousand distinct cultures and an immense diversity of artistic traditions. Oceanic art ranges from the elegant realism of Polynesian and Island Southeast Asian sculpture, to the minimalist aesthetic of Micronesian implements, to surreal, otherworldly images of Melanesian ancestors and spirits and the graceful figures and vibrant abstractions of Australian Aboriginal art. The Museum's holdings are strongest in the sculpture of New Guinea, including a large group of Asmat works collected by Michael Rockefeller in 1961. The Oceanic galleries also house an important collection of Polynesian sculpture as well as a diversity of material from Island Melanesia and Island Southeast Asia.

The ancient Americas are represented in the Metropolitan's collections by Precolumbian objects primarily from Mexico and Peru. Covering a 3,000-year period beginning at about 1500 B.C. and ending with the arrival of Europeans in America in the late 15th century A.D., these works consist of sculpture in stone and ceramic, rare carvings of wood, and precious pieces of gold, silver, and jade. Textiles and featherwork form part of the collection as well. The objects encompass Olmec carvings in jade from Mexico of the first millennium B.C., sculptural ceramic vessels of Peru's Moche peoples of about a thousand years later, and a ceremonial wood figure from the Caribbean of about 1500 A.D. The Jan Mitchell Treasury for Precolumbian Works of Art in Gold, which opened in the South American Gallery in 1993, houses the most representative display of American gold objects in the world. All of the goldworking areas of the ancient Americas are included.

A recent gift of particular note is that of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, in which well over one hundred works of brass and ivory from the Court of Benin in Nigeria were added to the collection. Dating from the 16th through the 19th centuries, the Perls gift consists of brass figures and architectural plaques, carved ivory altar tusks, musical instruments, boxes, staffs, and courtly and personal ornaments, among other objects. This important addition of royal art has been installed, together with the Metropolitan's existing collections from the Court of Benin, in the center of the recently renovated Benenson Gallery for African Art. Opened to the public in early 1996, the Benenson Gallery displays approximately 400 works, representing many of the regions of sub-Saharan Africa.

Temporary exhibitions are held in the Rockefeller Wing's special exhibition space. In recent years those exhibitions have included Guardians of the Longhouse: Art in Borneo, 1999; Jade in Ancient Costa Rica, 1998; and Master Hand: Individuality and Creativity among Yoruba Sculptors, 1997. The department's Robert Goldwater Library is a non-circulating research library dedicated to documenting the arts of the three departmental areas. It holds more than 20,000 books published around the world with an additional 15,000 volumes of periodicals. The Photograph Study Collection, a research collection dedicated to the same areas, consists of 19th- and 20th-century images that range from studio shots of works of art to exterior views that enlarge upon the cultural context of the works. Both collections are open to researchers. The Photograph Study Collection also mounts temporary photography exhibitions in the wing's east mezzanine.

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September 1999

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