From April 16, 2011, to February 26, 2012, the Cleveland Museum of Art will present an exhibition featuring a selection of about 75 personal and household objects from Southeast Africa. Aside from loans from more than 20 American private collections and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., the exhibition will highlight a varied group of 15 objects that the Cleveland Museum of Art recently acquired for its permanent collection.
The Art of Daily Life celebrates the stunning formal diversity and deep cultural meanings of Southeast Africa's artistic heritage. Despite some growing interest and appreciation over the past three decades, the art of traditional southern African societies have long been neglected. Portable in nature and generally small in size, works created by peoples such as the Zulu, Nguni, Tsonga, Ndebele, Sotho, and Swazi in the 19th and 20th centuries were typically related to the privacy of the home or the intimacy of the person. The makers and users of many of these works were cattle-herders with a complex history of migrations. This nomadic existence has contributed to the emergence of fluid regional artistic styles that often defy specific ethnic attributions.
Snuff containers, pipes, headrests, staffs, sticks, beer vessels, beadwork, and the various other works featured in this exhibition were primarily intended for daily use. Their continuous manipulation over time resulted in softened edges and lustrous patinas. However, whether figurative or abstract, naturalistic or geometric, carved out of wood, ivory, or horn, or made of cloth, glass beads, or clay, these prized possessions were much more than exquisitely designed functional objects. While some signaled status, gender, or age, others played a critical role in religious practices, serving as symbolic intermediaries between humans and ancestors.
The Art of Daily Life is the very first loan exhibition dedicated to the art of Southeast Africa to be presented at a major art museum in the United States. Many of the works included in the show have never been published. The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue co-published with 5 Continents Editions that will contain an essay by Karel Nel, an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and one of the leading scholars of southern African art, and entries by Constantine Petridis, the Cleveland Museum of Art's curator of African art and organizer of the exhibition.