Over 250 works spanning more than 2,500 years represent art from the African continent in the Museum's first-floor galleries. Additional related art from ancient Egypt and Islamic North Africa can be found in the second- and third-floor galleries. The art on view in the first-floor galleries ranges from ancient Nubian pottery and sculpture, Berber jewelry, and West African masks to East African beadwork, Ethiopian processional crosses, and a contemporary ceramic vessel by the Kenya-born artist Magdalene Odondo. The main focus of the African collections is on sculpture from West and Central Africa.
The gallery is arranged geographically, as if the viewer were moving across Africa—first from west to east and then, as the gallery turns, from north to south. The gallery seeks to celebrate the creative artistic genius of African artists by presenting exceptional examples of their work. At the same time it tries to help the viewer understand the cultural context in which these pieces were made and used. The groupings reflect stylistic relationships among objects produced in individual cultures as well as relationships among the diverse cultures found in Africa. Labels and panels describe the role that art plays in African life, while photographs and videos illustrate how, in many of these societies, art continues to transmit the traditions and values that have sustained African peoples for thousands of years.
Among the most famous pieces on view in the gallery are a figure of a hornblower, cast in brass for the king of Benin in the 16th century, and an ivory gong also made for the royal court in Benin at about the same time. A seventeenth-century figure of a Kuba king is the only one from that period in North America, and a Luluwa mother-and-child figure is world-renowned. The gallery also shows textiles, ceramics, jewelry, masks, and figures from more than 50 different cultures.