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Pioneering scholar of Nigerian art gifts major collection to the Newark Museum
Ottenberg developed his collection over the past 50 years, acquiring most of the works during research trips to Africa, and often directly from the artists themselves.

NEWARK, NJ.- The Newark Museum has announced a major gift of modern and contemporary African art from the collection of Dr. Simon Ottenberg, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle, and a pioneering scholar of modern and contemporary Nigerian art. The gift of some 145 works of art, including paintings, sculpture and works on paper, more than doubles the Museum’s existing collection of modern and contemporary African art. The strength of the collection resides in pre- and post-independence period works by Nigerian artists, with additional works by artists from South Africa, Sierra Leone and Ghana. Selected works from the collection made their debut at the Museum in the exhibition The Art of Translation: The Simon Ottenberg Gift of Modern and Contemporary Nigerian Art, which opened May 15.

Ottenberg developed his collection over the past 50 years, acquiring most of the works during research trips to Africa, and often directly from the artists themselves. His initial fieldwork in Nigeria during the 1950s and 1960s focused on traditional arts of the Afikpo Igbo culture. In the early 1990s, Ottenberg redirected his scholarship toward modern and contemporary Nigerian art, believing that the artists deserved to be better known. His research culminated in the 1997 exhibition, The Poetics of Line: Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group, at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. This groundbreaking exhibition introduced artists such as the now celebrated El Anatsui to a wider American audience.

“We are thrilled to be the home for this important collection,” said Dr. Christa Clarke, the Museum’s Senior Curator, Arts of Africa. “With Dr. Ottenberg’s transformative gift, the Museum can present more comprehensively the creative contributions of Africa’s artists over the past century and in doing so, contribute to an expanded understanding of art movements across the globe.”

Speaking of the decision to gift his collection to the Museum, Ottenberg said, “I chose the Newark Museum since it is a first-rate institution of long standing, has an energetic and innovative curator of African art, and is a place where my modern and contemporary art works help strengthen an important section of the collection.” Ottenberg was recognized for his major gift, as well as his lifelong contributions to scholarship on African art and culture, on May 11 when he received the Newark Museum’s Distinguished Collector Award at its annual Gala.

The Art of Translation takes an historical overview of modern and contemporary Nigerian art, presenting 24 works spanning the 1940s to 2000 by artists including Akinola Lasekan, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Jacob Afolabi, Obiora Udechukwu, Ada Udechukwu, Chinwe Uwatse, Olu Oguibe, Chika Okeke-Agulu and Marcia Kure. The exhibition considers how these artists have drawn upon their nation’s cultural and aesthetic traditions, translating their meanings, forms and functions as they have navigated the country’s changing social and political landscape. The Art of Translation is curated by Perrin Lathrop, Curatorial Associate, Arts of Africa, and remains on view through November 3.

“Over the past decade, the Newark Museum has been committed to collecting and exhibiting contemporary art from Africa,” said Mary Sue Sweeney Price, the CEO and Director of the Newark Museum. “To receive this major gift from Dr. Ottenberg – a pioneering collection – is also a testament to the groundbreaking role of the Newark Museum in expanding public understanding of African art.”

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