National Museum of African Art: Walt Disney – Tishman African Art Collection


The Walt Disney – Tishman African Art Collection is an ongoing exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. The collection is well-known for the rarity of its items from sub-Saharan Africa. According to the Smithsonian site, these artistic masterpieces have been an important step in defining the field of African art history – both in the United States and globally.


Paul Tishman, who started the collection in 1959 with his wife Ruth, was madly in love with African art. They spent 20 years building their collection with the goal of acquiring works from every major African art tradition. In an effort at exposing as many people to the collection as possible, the Tishman’s sold their collection to the Walt Disney Company in 1984. The exhibit was to be shown at Epcot Center but the idea was never realized. Instead, Disney made the collection available to different publications and art houses. The collection was donated to the Smithsonian in 2005.


Mother-child statutes reminiscent of the Christian Mary-and-Jesus pose that we see throughout all cultures embracing the Christian religion are plentiful throughout the exhibit. One wonders which rendition of the iconic portrait came first.


The sculptures on display were masterful, the technique flawless. I noticed how women were so integral to the stability of the nations represented in the room. The strength and nurturing of the African woman is apparent, reflecting what must have been and is a societal norm.


This ceremonial headpiece reminds me of Walt Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice when Micky Mouse wore the blue Merlin hat and created a dream world with the waving of his wand. The detail and craftmanship is just amazing.


Colorful beaded divination bags hung on the walls when first entering the exhibit. I immediately began to wonder what powerful, magical treasures they once held and who was the mystical person who carried them – possibly using its contents to cure the sick or induce a rain storm.



While taking photos of the exhibit, a group of high school students walked though on a tour of the Museum. The woman from the Museum directing the tour said that the horns on these statutes are symbolic of the hairstyles worn by the women in Nigeria. I’m not a scholar of African art as I assume the tour guide is, but that explanation just didn’t seem right to me. I wonder if these horns are meant to be just that – horns worn by some deity or ancestor. Very interesting.


The Walt Disney – Tishman African Art Collection is an on going exhbit 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.

4 Replies to “National Museum of African Art: Walt Disney – Tishman African Art Collection”

    1. Yes indeed! So many images that we assume are “originals” came from Africa so it’s great to find comparable work to share. I appreciate you visiting my blog. Please enjoy your day!

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