The art of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, and North, Central, and South America—including the Glassell Collections of African, Indonesian, and Pre-Columbian Gold—are overseen by a single curatorial department at the MFAH.
“African” describes art from the diverse continent of Africa from 500 BC to the present. The museum's African art collection features masks, sculptures, headdresses, textiles, and objects from a variety of regions, cultures, and countries. Masterpieces include a refined cast-metal head of a king from the Court of Benin, and a Fang culture reliquary figure that inspired early-20th-century artists. Many artworks were created to reinforce the rank and prestige of rulers, or to indicate status. Others honor ancestors. The African galleries of the MFAH were expanded and redesigned in 2010.
“Oceanic” refers to native cultures of Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific islands. The ocean has shaped these peoples and their art. Many works were fashioned from wood and plant fibers like reeds, and adorned with paint, feathers, and shells. Precious objects were also carved from stone. These peoples believed the universe was governed by invisible natural forces appeased by ritual and art. Ancestors were revered. The artworks in the museum's collection of Oceanic art are distinguished by visually potent designs. In 2008, the MFAH expanded its display of Oceanic objects.
“Pre-Columbian” describes the cultures that lived in Central and South America before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. Pre-Columbian art consists of two main regions: Mesoamerica—which includes Mexico and Central America—and South America. Over a period of more than 3,000 years kingdoms and empires rose and fell, leaving ruins and great works of art. Olmec jade, Maya stone sculpture, Nasca and Paracas textiles, and fine Moché ceramics are among the extraordinary artworks in the MFAH collection. In the 2009, the museum opened new, expanded Pre-Columbian art galleries.
"Native American" describes the art of diverse cultures of North America. The collection includes ceramics, kachina dolls, watercolors, textiles, baskets, masks, and silver jewelry dating from 2000 B.C. to the 1950s. The collection includes works from the Apache, Kwakiutl, and Tlingit cultures. Artworks of the Pueblo cultures of northern Arizona and New Mexico given by Houston philanthropist Miss Ima Hogg are the collection’s strength. In 2006 and 2008, the MFAH opened two galleries in the Caroline Wiess Law Building dedicated to the permanent display of Native American art.
Houston collector and philanthropist Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. (1913–2008), dedicated his life to the pursuit of excellence and betterment of the community. His passion for collecting began in childhood. From stamps he learned the geography of the world and developed an interest in and appreciation of diverse cultures. He was fascinated by gold art objects and, like the early cultures that fashioned them, valued gold not for its intrinsic value but for its spiritual meaning. He had a courageous and original eye, seeking artworks of diverse peoples long before they achieved popular acclaim. His great hope was that these remarkable collections would benefit the public, bringing beauty and understanding into the lives of generations to come. He gifted and bequeathed his extensive collections, the labor and love of a lifetime, to the MFAH. His pioneer spirit, longevity, and generosity will be forever remembered through his legacy: the Glassell Collections of African, Indonesian, and Pre-Columbian Gold.
From ancient times, gold was a symbol of wealth and power, and gold artworks were highly prized. On the African west coast, gold was abundant. Chiefs used gold works to demonstrate power and prestige, and to promote political unity. Court regalia, including jewelry, headdresses, swords, linguist staffs, and colorful textiles, conveyed history and beliefs. Today, few ancient gold works survive as a result of recasting traditions, trade, and war. The art that remains dates from the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Glassell Collection of African Gold is considered the finest of its kind in the world, and it is the largest, most comprehensive collection of African gold in an American museum.
Click here to view the collection.
Indonesia is a country composed of more than 17,000 islands north of Australia and south of Malaysia. Its ancient Hindu name meant "Islands of Gold." Gold and gems were believed to contain supernatural force. Gold represented the male power of the sun, burning with sacred and dangerous heat. This precious material was used to fashion adornment and ritual objects that embodied the beliefs of the cultures that valued them.
Without parallel in America, this collection was the inspiration of Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. Additional works were generously funded by Isabel B. and Wallace S. Wilson, and the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment.
The Indonesian Gold Gallery opened in 2008, one of five MFAH galleries showcasing the arts of Asia.
Gold played an important role in ancient Central and South America. Ancient Americans valued gold for its spiritual power. Gold was considered the flesh of the gods and possessed the sun’s energy. It was reserved for adornment and ritual objects. Gold sculptures of fantastic creatures show imagination and creativity. Without written language, these artworks radiate mystery. The Glassell Collection of Pre-Columbian Gold also includes rare and exquisite textiles, feathers, and wood, stone, and silver sculptures. It is without equal in the world.
Redesigned galleries enhancing the beauty of these artworks opened in 2010.