The African arts collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) contains about 480 works dating from the 600s through today. Encompassing sacred, secular, and prestige objects, it aims to reflect the diversity of African creativity in all its forms. Major strengths include carved wooden masks and sculptures by central and western African makers. The collection also contains artworks made in ivory, copper alloys, gold, fibers, beads, and earthenware. While those examples mostly date to the late 1800s or early 1900s, two terracotta figures––one from Nigeria (600 BC) and the other from Mali (1300–1600)––attest to the continent’s deep cultural history. Growing attention has been placed in recent years on acquiring historical objects made by female artists and pieces from across southern and eastern Africa. Recent acquisitions of contemporary works by leading African artists––including Hervé Youmbi, Kendell Geers, and Rachid Koraïchi––represent an expansive view of the arts of Africa to the present day.
The CMA acquired its first African artworks in 1915, a year before opening its doors to the public. In 1929, it received a significant gift of works from the Gilpin Players and the African Art Sponsors, a group of Black Clevelanders. Their fundraising efforts allowed noted Cleveland artist Paul Travis to purchase works while traveling through Africa the previous year. The core of the museum’s collection consists of the nearly 100 objects donated in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Cleveland resident Katherine C. White. Among the first to build an important American collection of African arts, she was instrumental in creating several landmark exhibitions at the CMA. The acquisition of the collection of René and Odette Delenne in the 2010s greatly expanded the representation of accomplished artworks from across central Africa. In addition, other works by African creators are cared for in the museum’s collections of textiles, Islamic art, medieval art, contemporary art, photography, and Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern art.