Arts of Africa, Pacific Islands, and Pacific Northwest Coast
Soon after they began their collection of Cubist and Surrealist art, the de Menils’ interest was sparked by the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Pacific Northwest Coast. Like many of the modern masters they collected, they were inspired by these objects, finding within them profound aesthetic and spiritual correspondences to cultures separated by vast distances of space and time. Thus, it is little coincidence that, between the 1950s and 1970s, this part of the collection grew in tandem with the Modern and Contemporary works. While the cubists had looked to African sculpture as a source of formal inspiration, Surrealists turned to the lesser known art of the Pacific Islands and Native America, among other traditions, for its potential to inspire new ways of thinking about the world. It was precisely the fact that the forms, meanings, and functions of these works could not be easily ascertained that made them so appealing and provocative to these artists. The intersection between Surrealism and the art of the Pacific Islands and Northwest Coast in the collection is made apparent in the Witnesses exhibition, part of the permanent collection galleries in the museum.
Arts of Africa
The African holdings at the Menil Collection number close to 1,000 objects. Like the collections from other areas, these holdings are not encyclopedic. There are concentrations of objects from Mali, including Dogon sculpture, Bamana masks and headdresses, Inland Niger Delta terra cotta figures; a cluster of objects from the Nigerian Kingdom of Benin, including bronze heads; and Lega ivories, sculpted wooden masks and figures from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unique works occasionally punctuate these larger groupings, such as a Jukun figure from Nigeria and a Bongo grave effigy from the Republic of Sudan. In 2008, the Menil reinstalled its African galleries for the first time since the museum opened in 1987, presenting works never previously displayed and demonstrating the diversity of approaches to the human form taken by various African cultures
Arts of the Pacific Islands
Arts of the Pacific Islands refers to objects from a geographic area covering several million square miles of ocean from Australia west to French Polynesia, and from New Zealand north to the Hawaiian Islands. The Oceanic collection at the Menil contains works from four distinct geographic regions: Australia, Polynesia (including Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, and the Cook Islands), Micronesia (the Caroline, Marshall, and Palau Islands), and Melanesia (including New Guinda, Fiji, New Ireland, and the Solomon Islands). Although small in number when compared to the overall collection, the works in this area are often exceptional in their quality. Long-term loans from a private collection significantly enhance the Menil Collection’s presentation of Oceanic art.
Arts of the Pacific Northwest
The native populations of the Northwest Coast of North America, stretching from what is now Northern California to Alaska, include people from the Haida, Tlingit, Kwakiutl, Nootka, and Bella Bella cultures. Their art, characterized by dramatic, highly stylized human and animal motifs, exhibits both a high degree of technical skill and the makers’ deeply held spiritual beliefs tied to the natural world. Although the Menil owns only a few Northwest Coastal objects, there are exquisite examples among them, including two collected by explorer James Cook during his 1776 expedition. The museum’s holdings are substantially augmented by long-term loans.