Director's Foreword

Erin M. Coe, Director, Palmer Museum of Art 

We are proud to present the exhibition African Brilliance: A Diplomat’s Sixty Years of Collecting and this companion digital catalogue. This is the first major presentation of African material at Penn State in nearly a quarter century. In the years following the founding of Penn State’s Museum of Art in 1972, African art had a limited presence at University Park. Over time a collection of African art developed through purchase but mostly by way of gifts. Objects were placed on public view in two special exhibitions, in 1974 and again in 1981, and some of these were on extended display in 1993 with the opening of the expanded and renamed Palmer Museum of Art in a small installation buttressed by important loans. A significant engagement with African art began in earnest in 1995, when the museum hosted the exhibition Sleeping Beauties: African Headrests from the Jerome L. Joss Collection at UCLA. This groundbreaking exhibition, organized by the Fowler Museum, introduced museum audiences, through the presentation of more than 120 objects, to the diversity and richness of expression within and across dozens of African cultures. 

The principal curator for Sleeping Beauties was William Dewey, then an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, who visited the Palmer Museum of Art to lecture on the headrests and review the museum’s small collection of African material. Coincidentally, and somewhat fortuitously, Bill Dewey joined Penn State’s Department of Art History in 2010. He was well positioned when, a few years later, he learned through a colleague that a major collector of African art, former U.S. Ambassador Allen Davis, was interested in disseminating his holdings to museums that would use the objects for teaching and exhibition. Negotiating with Davis on behalf of the Palmer Museum of Art, Bill arranged for the purchase and gift of forty-one mostly utilitarian objects, ranging from chairs, ceramics, and various containers to knifes, hats, and—numerous headrests. The landmark acquisition, completed in 2016, greatly enhances the museum’s ability to present a more comprehensive view of African art. 

Recognizing the intimate link between the depth and quality of Davis’s collection and his diplomatic career, Bill proposed an exhibition at the Palmer Museum. Coming to fruition under the title African Brilliance: A Diplomat’s Sixty Years of Collecting, the narrative follows Allen Davis’s many postings—from his early years in Liberia, Algeria, and Senegal, through his duties in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Guinea, and finally Uganda, where he served as U.S. Ambassador from 1983 through 1985. The exhibition additionally focuses on the relationships he developed with luminaries of the African art world at the time of his collecting, including George Harley, Margaret Plass, William Fagg, and Fr. Joseph Cornet.

African Brilliance would not have been possible without the support and active participation of Allen and Barbara Davis, who not only lent many important works from their collection, but also graciously opened their home to curators and others on numerous occasions during the planning of the exhibition. We are grateful to the four institutions and their respective directors for lending objects to the exhibition, including, Dr. Valerie Hillings, Director, North Carolina Museum of Art; Dr. Augustus Casely–Hayford, Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art; Kirk Johnson, Sant Director, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; and Dr. Julian Siggers, Williams Director, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Special recognition goes to Bill Dewey, whose persistent curatorial efforts, coupled with his deep and encyclopedic knowledge of African art, kept the project on track. From start to finish it was Bill’s vision that guided the organization of the exhibition. We expressly thank the exhibition's co-curators, Penn State graduate student Janet Purdy and Mary Jo Arnoldi, curator of anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who worked closely with Bill on the exhibition’s planning and contributed significant research and scholarly texts for the online catalogue. What follows in digital form are two insightful essays that describe Allen Davis’s long diplomatic career, his commitment to Africa and African affairs, and how this informed his passion as a collector. The individual object entries present an interactive experience that involves 360-degree photography for 3D objects, and multimedia content to help readers understand African art in the context of Davis’s life and work. Other components of the online catalogue include digitally recorded interviews with Allen Davis, as well as interviews with six members of the Penn State community who have had firsthand experience with the types of objects presented in the exhibition under the heading “African Voices.”

The online catalogue that accompanies African Brilliance is the first digital undertaking of its kind for the Palmer Museum of Art and was funded by a Strategic Initiative Seed Grant from Penn State’s Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost. The proposal for the grant was written by John Russell, Digital Humanities Librarian for Research Informatics and Publishing in the University Libraries, Carolyn Lucarelli, Curator of the Department of Art History’s Visual Resources Centre, and Patrick McGrady, the Palmer Museum’s Charles V. Hallman Senior Curator, who also served as project manager of the exhibition. The publication of the catalogue brought together many talented individuals from the College of Arts and Architecture who worked collaboratively on the catalogue’s digital build and design, including, Assistant Curator Catherine Adams, Carolyn Lucarelli, and art history graduate student Emily Hagen of the Visual Resources Centre. Their work was ably supported by graduate assistants Caroline Bastian and Jennifer Glissman. Other contributors were Nikki Massaro Kauffman and Stephanie Swindle Thomas of the Office of Digital Learning, Scott Lindsay and James Barr of the College’s Information Technology, and Elyan Jeanine Hill, a postdoctoral fellow in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State, who led most of the interviews for “African Voices.” We extend our appreciation to Cody Goddard, also from the Office of Digital Learning, whose photographic expertise was responsible for the catalogue’s 360-degree object views as well as for the interviews with Allen Davis and the participants in “African Voices.”  

Our warmest thanks is extended to the many museum professionals at the lending institutions who helped us realize the exhibition: Angie Bell-Morris, North Carolina Museum of Art; Clarissa Fostel and Amy Staples, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art; Allison Butler, Kim Cullen Cobb, and Kristen Quarles, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; and Anne Brancati and Alessandro Pezzati, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. At the Palmer Museum we are grateful to Patrick McGrady, who worked closely with the curatorial team to oversee the many facets of the exhibition and online catalogue; Beverly Sutley, for ensuring the safe and timely travel of loans; Richard Hall for the design and, together with Craig Witter, the installation of the exhibition; and Brandi Breslin, whose interpretive expertise has greatly enhanced the exhibition’s accessibility for our audiences. We additionally thank Joyce Robinson for her editorial efforts on a number of exhibition and catalogue texts, and Sarah Anne Wharton and Janet Purdy for lending their graphic design skills to the promotional materials that present this exhibition to the public.

Finally, we extend our sincere and abiding gratitude to Allen Davis for his generosity to the Palmer Museum of Art. We also thank Allen for entrusting us with this project and for sharing his expertise and experience as a lifelong and passionate collector of African art. His collection has remained, until now, a hidden gem, known only to a handful of scholars and institutions. Though not as well recognized nationally or internationally as some of his counterparts in the field, the incredible breadth and variety of the objects he collected is not typically found in most private collections. And, finally, Allen collected works of African art that both had a presence and that beckoned his presence. We invite you to utilize this online catalogue and to return again and again to behold these fascinating and exquisite objects reflecting the brilliance of African art.