When the Philadelphia Museum of Art started to plan an exhibition about Africa, it informally surveyed visitors, asking for their general impressions of the continent. Responses like “I think of safaris” were common—and illuminating: The museum realized it could play a role in expanding Americans’ understanding of Africa, an incredibly diverse continent with 1.1 billion people, 54 countries, and an estimated 2,000 languages. “It’s terrifying to think of how many people hear ‘Africa’ and think of it as a country, not a continent,” says John Vick, a curator at the museum. “We thought, ‘How can we use art to help people reconsider the world around them and, in this case, a world on the other side of the ocean?’.”
The result is Creative Africa, which features a spectrum of work by African designers and artists, along with the award-winning architect Diébédo Francis Kéré. The ambitious show comprises five exhibitions, each occupying a gallery in the Perelman Building (an Art Deco landmark that was enlarged in 2007 by Gluckman Mayner Architects). Organized by Vick and curator Kristina Van Dyke, the show opened last week and runs until September 25, with one exhibition on view through December 4.
The Philadelphia museum is the latest major cultural institution to probe Africa’s creative landscape. In 2015, Denmark’s Louisiana Museum presented a broad survey of architecture and design in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Germany’s Vitra Design Museum staged a traveling exhibition of work by more than 120 African artists and designers. Other exhibitions have been mounted recently as well—some carrying economic and political undertones—but the curatorial mission for Creative Africa” was to convey the multiplicity of cultures and artistic styles within the massive continent.
The anchor exhibition, on view until December, is Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art, which presents over 150 relics—sculpted vessels, wooden voodoo dolls, bronze altar plaques—that acquaint visitors with the varied types and functions of historic African art. The pieces were drawn from the Penn Museum’s permanent collection.
To represent African architecture, the museum turned to Kéré, the Berlin-based architect who grew up in Burkina Faso and now creates low-cost, sustainable buildings in his homeland. In an atrium space, Kéré has inserted a tall, maze-like structure made of thin, colored cords. As guests pass through the installation, they are immersed in sounds of everyday life recorded in Philadelphia and Burkina Faso, from church bells and hockey games, to the crowing of roosters at dawn. The cord was locally fabricated and refers to Philadelphia’s legacy as a textile hub during the Industrial Revolution.
In an adjoining gallery, Kéré has installed three enclosures, also made of string, that serve as theaters. In the “canopy” theater, visitors look up to watch footage of fluttering leaves or construction workers balancing on roof beams. Another theater presents moving imagery related to shadows, while the third offers day-in-the-life shots from the architect’s native village. The gallery also includes documentation of Kéré's work, including models, photographs, and samples of building materials such as wood logs and clay pots.
While rural environments figure in Kéré’s work, urban settings are the focus of the show’s contemporary photography exhibition, which presents scenes captured in six African cities, from historic mosques in Timbuktu, Mali, to the clogged streets of Lagos, Nigeria. Creative Africa also explores the continent’s rich textile heritage through two exhibitions: one showcasing traditional patterns and fabrication techniques, and the other displaying work by Vlisco, a Dutch company that produces vibrant, wax-printed fabrics for the African apparel market.
Creative Africa encompasses a substantial amount of material, but Vick admits the scope is still limited. “You can never do a show that’s completely comprehensive,” he says. “You can just offer some ideas and hopefully spark curiosity.” By spotlighting standout examples of art and design from the continent, the exhibition offers new perceptions of Africa and introduces visitors to its vast creative landscape, both historically and in the present day.