High Museum of Art
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High Museum of Art

Looking Back, Looking Forward, with Friends of African Art

With the support of Friends, our African art collection is growing into a grand new space.

Spring is my favorite time of the year in Atlanta. I love the perfumed air as a kaleidoscope of flowers blossoms. It was spring 17 years ago when I began my position as the High’s first ever Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art. I was tasked with building the African art collection, planning for its presentation, and developing the special exhibition program for African art. To say that these years have been gratifying is an understatement.

The High is now in the midst of a major renovation and reinstallation. This October, the African art collection will move to a grand 5,000-square-foot gallery. With such momentous change in the works, I’m reminded of the many thanks I owe to the Friends of African Art. The Friends group was founded in 2005 with the goal of building and enriching the High’s collection. Fifteen African artworks have been acquired with funding raised by the Friends group since 2007, significantly enhancing the High’s collection.

The Friends of African Art enjoy one-on-one time with the curator, exclusive opening receptions for exhibitions, priority registration for educational events, opportunities to socialize with visiting speakers, behind-the-scenes tours, and other benefits. Friends also learn about art connoisseurship, criticism, and collecting — all while getting to know a group of individuals who are passionate and knowledgeable about African art.

To give you an idea of the people you might meet in our group, I’d like to highlight and thank two of our Friends, Drs. Phillip M. Randall and Ahlam Alawadi.

Featured Friends: Drs. Phillip M. Randall and Ahlam Alawadi

Dr. Ahlam Alawadi, Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art Carol Thompson, and Dr. Phillip M. Randall.

Ever since Randall and Ahlam joined the Friends of African Art, they have not only supported the collection personally through their generosity, they have also worked to garner support from others.

In March, Randall and Ahlam even opened up their beautiful home to host a private reception and share their stories about collecting African art. Guests included current Friends of African Art, a visiting art dealer (Bamako-born, Los Angeles–based Fily Keita), art collectors, and community members looking to learn about the High’s African Art Department.

A Passion for African Art

Randall has been a passionate and knowledgeable collector of African art for more than 40 years. He traveled abroad extensively while working in the technology, education, and business sectors. His collection reflects this cosmopolitan background and includes art not only from across the African continent but also from around the world.

Randall’s set of miniature masks, including a tiny aluminum amulet.

One highlight of Randall’s collection is a precious set of miniature masks from across the continent, including the tiniest one of all, a very rare amulet made of aluminum.

Other classic forms from across the continent include masks and figurative sculptures from the Dan, Mende, Lega, Pende, Songye, Kuba, Kongo, and other regions. Two very unusual, exceptionally fine, rare works take the form of hats: one, entirely covered in cowrie shells, would have been worn by a Yoruba priest or priestess; the other, from the Lega region — covered with pangolin scales and adorned with elephant tail, buttons, and beads — would have been worn by a member of the highest level of the Bwami initiation society.

Donation to the High’s Collection

In December of 2017, Randall and Ahlam donated an especially masterful Zaramo doll from Tanzania to the High. The minimalist abstraction of this small sculpture heightens its symbolic value as an emblem of gender identity.

The High’s Zaramo doll, by an unknown Tanzanian artist.

In the shape of a female torso, with stylized head, breasts, and navel, the doll wears a strand of beads made from ostrich shell around her waist, just like those worn by Zaramo women. Such dolls are used by female initiates during seclusion and coming-out ceremonies, making them a strong symbol of womanhood. They are passed down through the generations to teach young Zaramo girls about becoming women. These dolls, called Mwana Hiti, help define a girl’s responsibilities and expectations, emphasizing the centrality of motherhood in Zaramo culture. The dolls celebrate history, identity, and family ties, uniting Zaramo people across generations.

This small sculpture is a particularly excellent and unusually large example, with a beautiful, rich patina. It is the third work of art from Tanzania to enter the High’s collection and strengthens our representation of art from Eastern Africa. The doll will be on view in the new African art gallery opening in October with the debut of the High’s reinstallation.

To support our African art collection and attend events with Randall, Ahlam, and our growing group of Friends, consider joining the Friends of African Art!

By Carol Thompson, Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art

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Stories from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta

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