Palmer Museum of Art premieres new exhibition of African art

January 27, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State announces its first major exhibition for the 2020 season, "African Brilliance: A Diplomat’s Sixty Years of Collecting." Opening on Feb. 8, the exhibition will showcase more than 80 works from East, Central, and West Africa collected over six decades by retired U.S. Ambassador Allen C. Davis. The show will be accompanied by a rich array of free programming, including a lecture series, noontime gallery talks, and family-friendly art activities that will take place throughout the semester.

The exhibition will be on view at the Palmer Museum of Art through May 24, 2020.

Dan people, Liberia and Ivory Coast, Face Mask (tanka gle)

Dan people, Liberia and Ivory Coast, "Face Mask (tanka gle)," 20th century, wood, 8 5/8 x 5 3/8 x 3 1/8 inches. ­­

IMAGE: Collection of Allen and Barbara Davis.

"African Brilliance: A Diplomat’s Sixty Years of Collecting" features 83 objects by 20th-century African artists from a variety of cultures across the continent, including the Dan people of Liberia, the Mossi and Lobi peoples of Burkina Faso, the Dogon and Bamana peoples of Mali, the Akan peoples of Ghana, and the Kuba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others. The objects presented include carved and decorated wooden sculptures, natural fiber and beaded textiles, metalwork, and ceramic pots that represent household, community and ritual practices from across these peoples and regions.

The exhibition’s wide-ranging selection of African art comes from the notable collection amassed by Davis during his long tenure with the United States Diplomatic Corps and his subsequent retirement in Virginia.

“For the first time, this exhibition introduces audiences to the collection of a major collector of African art,” said Erin M. Coe, director of the Palmer Museum of Art. “Allen Davis was an engaged and informed collector, and the objects he acquired during his long diplomatic career reflect the great diversity and richness of expression found within and across an array of African cultures.”

“Allen Davis had an incredible knack for collecting some of the most interesting and exquisite objects, and the beauty of African art is truly reflected in this exhibition,” added scholar William Dewey, associate professor of art history at Penn State, who served as the guest curator of the exhibition. “Most collectors of African art focus on a particular niche, but Allen took a different tack and collected with incredible breadth and variety, amassing the arts of many different ethnic groups and many different mediums. That variety, and the fact that he collected both ritual and utilitarian objects, is what excited me about working with him on this exhibition,” Dewey said.

Davis said he loved collecting things from the time he was a child, but it was his more than three decades of work with the U.S. State Department that afforded him the real opportunity to grow his art collection in earnest. With his first African posting to Liberia in 1958, he began to gather not just traditional collectibles (masks, figures, etc.), but also everyday objects — baskets, boxes, bowls, jewelry, utensils, and textiles — from daily life around the regions he worked. After more than 34 years of diplomacy, he retired in 1990, at which point he and his wife, Barbara, started their donation of now more than 2,000 objects to different educational institutions across the country.

“If these objects were going to be placed on the market — and they were — then I wanted them to be collected and scattered around to universities and museums like the Palmer that wanted to educate other people about Africa,” said Davis. “It's an honor to have the exhibition at the museum, and Barbara and I are very devoted to the people at the Palmer and the Smithsonian for this experience."

"African Brilliance" is organized by the Palmer Museum of Art and curated by William Dewey, as well as Janet Purdy, doctoral candidate in art history at Penn State and Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago; and Mary Jo Arnoldi, curator emerita of African ethnology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It will feature work collected by Davis, from the Palmer’s permanent collection, the private collection of Allen and Barbara Davis, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of African Art, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the North Carolina Museum of Art. 

An online catalogue will accompany the exhibition and feature essays by Dewey, Purdy and Arnoldi, as well as interviews with Davis and members of the Penn State community who have had firsthand experience with the types of objects presented in the exhibition. The catalogue is the first digital undertaking of its kind for the Palmer Museum and has been funded by a Strategic Initiative Seed Grant from Penn State’s Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost.


— Friday, Feb. 14, 12:10 p.m. — Gallery talk: "African Brilliance: A Diplomat’s Sixty Years of Collecting," by William Dewey, associate professor of art history

— Wednesday, Feb. 19, 5:30 p.m. — Lecture: "Yoruba Masking at the Diasporic Crossroad," by Bolaji Campbell, professor of African and African Diaspora art, Department of Theory and History of Art and Design, RISD.

Campbell will examine four contemporary African diaspora artists, Wole Lagunju, Moyo Okediji, Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou and Nick Cave, who have appropriated Egungun iconography as an abiding symbol of their artistic vision. The four artists exhibit the complexity of traits including ambivalence, novelty, and innovation that are consistent with the Yoruba notion and idiosyncratic representation of the artistic personality known as "Are" — the tendencies for itinerancy, discovery, boldness, and disruptiveness that have come to define artistic creativity within the Yoruba universe. The lecture is co-sponsored by the Palmer Museum of Art and the African Studies Program. This event is part of the "African Brilliance" Lecture Series.

— Saturday, Feb. 22, Noon to 3 p.m. — Family Day: "Textiles and African Brilliance." Explore the woven, embroidered, and beaded textiles in "African Brilliance" and create your own raffia weaving. Don't miss a performance at noon by the community ensemble Roots of Life. Visitors to Family Day events at the Palmer can enjoy brief, family-friendly guided tours and art activities designed for all ages.

— Friday, March 6, 12:10 p.m. — Gallery Talk: "Sacred Art in Motion: Performance in Ghana, Togo, and Liberia,"  by Elyan Jeanine Hill Post-Doctoral Fellow, Africana Research Center and Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

— Thursday, March 19, 5:30 p.m., during Art After Hours — Lecture: "The Missionary as Collector: Dr. George W. Harley in Liberia, 1925–1960," by Christopher B. Steiner, Lucy C. McDannel ’22 Professor of Art History and Anthropology and Director of the Museum Studies Program, Connecticut College.

Steiner will explore the history of African art-collecting in Liberia by examining the work of American medical-missionary George W. Harley. By tracing his career in Liberia between 1925 and 1960, the lecture reveals how Harley shifted from ethnographic collecting in the 1930s and 1940s to marketing objects for a burgeoning African art market in America beginning in the 1950s. Steiner considers such issues as the ethics of field collecting, the cultural construction of authenticity, and the role of provenance in the contemporary market for "high-end" African art. The lecture is co-sponsored by the Palmer Museum of Art, African Studies Program, and the Department of Art History. This event is part of the "African Brilliance" Lecture Series.

— Thursday, March 19, 6 to 9 p.m. — Art After Hours: "Celebrating African Art." Enjoy gallery and art-making activities inspired by objects on view in "African Brilliance: A Diplomat’s Sixty Years of Collecting" and participate in the Palmer’s first-ever Mancala Tournament. Art After Hours is a once-a-month evening event designed especially for student, offering multiple activities, programs, and performances that help visitors of all ages connect with art in fun and interesting ways. For full details about these programs, check the Palmer’s website.

— Thursday, March 19, 7:30 p.m., during Art After Hours — Lecture and Film Screening: "The Catalogue of Speculative Translations," by Abigail Celis, Marian Trygve Freed Early Career Professor in French and Francophone Studies and African Studies, Penn State.

Celis will discuss and screen her experimental video project that creates an alternative sensorial world of African art objects held in museum collections, especially the Museum of Art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, in Marseille, France. Whether regarded as a temple or a forum, art museums tend to privilege sight as the primary mode for relating to the objects on display. "The Catalogue of Speculative Translations" "(re)activates the textures, sounds, and affects that are muted in the museum space." Through this re-visioning, the film evokes histories of colonialism and conquest, but also community and care, that are part of the collection's biography. Sponsored by the Palmer Museum of Art. This event is part of the "African Brilliance" Lecture Series.

— Friday, March 20, 12:10 p.m. — Gallery Talk: "African Brilliance: Design, Pattern, and Creative Artistry," by Janet Purdy, doctoral candidate in art history at Penn State and Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago.

— Thursday, April 2, 5:30 p.m. — Lecture: "From 'Nomoli' to Export Ivories: Sixteenth-century Sierra Leonean Artists and their Local and European Patrons," by Kathy Curnow, associate professor of art history, Cleveland State University.

Sixteenth-century coastal Sierra Leone included a multitude of Temne and Bullom artists who made small soapstone figures (called "nomoli" today), as well as wooden figures and masks and ivory trumpets. After Portuguese contact in 1462, they expanded their repertoire to make ivory saltcellars, horns, cutlery, and ecclesiastical items for these foreigners. They retained their figurative style and some motifs, but adapted their works for foreign tastes, creating a cottage industry that lasted for less than a century. The lecture is co-sponsored by the Palmer Museum of Art, African Studies Program, and the Department of Art History. This event is part of the "African Brilliance" Lecture Series.


The Palmer Museum of Art on the Penn State University Park campus is a free-admission arts resource for the University and surrounding communities in central Pennsylvania. With a collection of more than 9,600 objects representing a variety of cultures and spanning centuries of art, the Palmer is the largest art museum between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Areas of strength include the museum’s collection of American art from the late 18th century to the present, Old Master paintings, prints and photography, ceramics and studio glass, and a growing collection of modern and contemporary art. The museum presents nine special exhibitions each year and, with eleven galleries, a print-study room, a 150-seat auditorium, and an outdoor sculpture garden, the Palmer Museum of Art is the leading cultural resource for the region.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays and some holidays. For more information on the Palmer Museum of Art or for the calendar of upcoming events, visit

  • Kuba people, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Textile

    Kuba people, Democratic Republic of the Congo, "Textile," 20th century, raffia, 59 1/4 x 26 inches. 

    IMAGE: Gift of Allen Davis, E433900, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Nuna (Nunama) people, Burkina Faso, Mask (koan)

    Nuna (Nunama) people, Burkina Faso, "Mask" (koan), 20th century, wood, 20 3/8 x 8 1/8 x 8 5/8 inches. 

    IMAGE: Palmer Museum of Art, 2016.75.
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