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Palmer Museum of Art premieres brilliant exhibition of African art
Kuba people, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Textile, 20th century, raffia, 59 1/4 x 26 inches. Gift of Allen Davis, E433900, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution.

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA.- The Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State opened its first major exhibition for the 2020 season, African Brilliance: A Diplomat’s Sixty Years of Collecting. The exhibition showcases more than eighty works from East, Central, and West Africa collected over six decades by retired U.S. Ambassador Allen C. Davis. The show is 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.

African Brilliance: A Diplomat’s Sixty Years of Collecting features eighty-three objects by twentieth-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 Ambassador Allen C. 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 Dr. 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 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 thirty-four 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,” he added. African Brilliance is organized by the Palmer Museum of Art and curated by Dr. William Dewey as well as Janet Purdy, Ph.D. 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 accompanies 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.

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