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Reviewed by:
  • African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection
  • Pascal James Imperato
Christine Mullen Kreamer, with contributions from Bryna Freyer and Andrea Nicolls and an introducton by Martin Sklar. African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art; Munich and New York: Prestel, 2007. xix + 235 pp. Photographs. Map. Figures. Notes. Bibliography. $65.00. Cloth.

This beautifully produced large-format book, rich in color photographs illustrating eighty-two objects, provides a window into the larger collection of African art assembled by the late Paul and Ruth Tishman. The Tishmans began collecting African art in the late 1950s and continued to do so for another two decades. In 1984 the Tishman collection was sold to the Walt Disney Company for the purpose of placing it on permanent exhibition in an African pavilion at the Epcot Center. However, the pavilion was never built, and except for an occasional exhibition of a few objects, the collection remained in storage. In 2005 the Walt Disney Company donated the collection of more than five hundred objects to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, which in 2007 placed a selection of them on exhibition; this volume resulted from that exhibition.

Over the years the Tishman collection was frequently exhibited at major museums; however, it was primarily a 1968 exhibition (titled “Sculpture of Black Africa: The Paul Tishman Collection”) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that had the greatest influence in setting aesthetic and other standards for scholars, museum curators, dealers, and collectors—standards that enshrined a canon of “classical” African art and remained unchallenged until recently. Hierarchical in nature, this canon defined what is desirable based on the aesthetic preferences of Western collectors, not necessarily on what African creators or viewers once thought (or currently think) of these objects. In addition, collectors’ emphasis on “precolonial” artifacts eventually brought them into philosophical conflict with a younger generation of scholars who oppose a static view of African art, viewing it instead as representative of a creative continuum covering a range of forms that change over time. [End Page 191]

This dialogue—between those who defend a static “classical” standard for African art and those who see this art as dynamic and changing—is clearly explored by Mullen Kreamer in her first chapter. As she cogently notes, “Collectors were interested in perpetuating the notion that African art of quality existed in pre-colonial times and largely free of European influence, thus reinforcing their aesthetic judgments and enhancing the value of their collections as the market supply of art meeting [these] criteria dwindled” (9–10). She notes further that “although these debates were not the concern of the Tishmans (or other early collectors) while they were building their collections decades ago, any assessment of a well-known private collection today must take these factors into consideration in light of the evolving nature of the field. The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection thus serves as a touchstone not only in the development of the field of African art history, but also in the ongoing debates that continue to define the changing nature of the discipline” (10). These are among the most important statements made in this volume; they reflect both sensitive understanding of what guided some Western collectors decades ago and of current changed perspectives.

They also set the stage for a fresh interpretation of this collection, informed by variables beyond mere collector aesthetic preferences. Each of the three chapters begins with a well-written and highly informative essay embracing concepts that emphasize the dynamic nature of African art traditions, thus transcending the limited perspective of aesthetic classicism. In addition, each illustrated object is accompanied by an extensive caption that discusses not only its aesthetic and physical characteristics, but also its historical and ethnographic contexts. Both essays and captions are accompanied by excellent reference notes.

This volume and the exhibition it accompanies reflect the aesthetic vision of Paul and Ruth Tishman. However, Mullen Kreamer has met the challenge of revisiting a much exhibited iconic collection, framing her discussion within a more inclusive perspective that informs readers about Africans and their art on a broad...


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