National Museum of African Art: The Artistic Legacy of Gabon


Last weekend during a quick visit to DC, I decided to spend the day at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The first exhibit that I encountered was The Artistic Legacy of Gabon which was presented in conjunction with the Museum’s Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa exhibition. Earth Matters focused on African artists and their relationship to the land from which they draw both inspiration and materials for their work.


Gabon is home to beautifully abundant forests and is a leader in the area of environmental conservation. The country’s lush, green natural surroundings influence the work of its artists in many different and interesting ways. Some of the natural elements found in the composition of these particular pieces include wood, bone, seed pods, pigments and plant fibers.


Many groups in Gabon kept relics of important deceased leaders because it was believed that these items held extraordinary powers. Sacred relics, called bwiti, were often made of wood, overlaid with metal, and kept tied to special boxes or baskets. However, after 1930, the creation of bwiti, reliquary guardian figures, ceased because of the heavy Christian proselytization aimed as destroying the culture and religious practices of the people.


The well-known Spanish artist Pablo Picasso collected many of his African art pieces from different people groups in Gabon such as the Fang, Kota, Mbete, and Punu. These nations most likely influenced Picasso’s own artistic technique.


The National Museum of African Art is one of my favorite of the Smithsonian museums and I do try to make time to see what’s new when I am in town. This sacred place never ceases to amaze and is always filled with some of the most interesting and intricate pieces of art from across the continent. As an African and an art lover, I feel such a strong connection to this space and love that it is ever evolving.

IMG_1083The Artistic Legacy of Gabon was exhibited at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. For information on current exhibits, visit the National Museum of African Art’s website at

Photography by Ajua Hawkins.

Copyright 2014 Ajua Hawkins

6 Replies to “National Museum of African Art: The Artistic Legacy of Gabon”

  1. Beautiful art, although it does give me pause whenever relics or the sacred elements of a culture are put on display. What better way is there to proclaim one culture’s superiority to another than to put on display, in a box, it’s heart…?


    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you. Completely. It is one of the reasons that I enjoy going into these institutions and seeing these beautiful sacred creations. In a way I feel like I am reclaiming them by spending time with these works – like, you don’t get to dictate who has access to these things. It always makes me feel a bit sad to see all of the Egyptian relics in the western museums. Stolen but held out for all to see in plain sight. Thank you again Michael.

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