El Anatsui (Ewe), Rain Has No Father?, 2008. Found bottle tops and copper wire; 153 x 239 in. Denver Art Museum: Funds from Native Arts acquisition fund, U.S. Bank, Richard and Theresa Davis, Douglas Society, Denver Art Museum Volunteer Endowment, Alex Cranberg and Susan Morris, Geta and Janice Asfaw, Saron and Daniel Yohannes, Lee McIntire, Milroy and Sheryl Alexander, Dorothy and Richard Campbell, Wayne Carey and Olivia Thompson, Morris Clark, Rebecca H. Cordes, Kenneth and Rebecca Gart, Tim and Bobbi Hamill, Kalleen and Robert Malone, Meyer and Geri Saltzman, Ann and Gerry Saul, Mary Ellen and Thomas Williams, Nancy and James Williams, Forrest Cason, First Western Trust Bank, Howard and Sandy Gelt, Gene Osborne, Boettcher Foundation, John and Eve Glesne, The Schlegel White Foundation, Jeffrey and Nancy Balter, and Tamara Banks, 2008.891. © El Anatsui

El Anatsui (Ewe), Rain Has No Father?, 2008. Found bottle tops and copper wire; 153 x 239 in. Denver Art Museum: Funds from Native Arts acquisition fund, U.S. Bank, Richard and Theresa Davis, Douglas Society, Denver Art Museum Volunteer Endowment, Alex Cranberg and Susan Morris, Geta and Janice Asfaw, Saron and Daniel Yohannes, Lee McIntire, Milroy and Sheryl Alexander, Dorothy and Richard Campbell, Wayne Carey and Olivia Thompson, Morris Clark, Rebecca H. Cordes, Kenneth and Rebecca Gart, Tim and Bobbi Hamill, Kalleen and Robert Malone, Meyer and Geri Saltzman, Ann and Gerry Saul, Mary Ellen and Thomas Williams, Nancy and James Williams, Forrest Cason, First Western Trust Bank, Howard and Sandy Gelt, Gene Osborne, Boettcher Foundation, John and Eve Glesne, The Schlegel White Foundation, Jeffrey and Nancy Balter, and Tamara Banks, 2008.891. © El Anatsui

Collection Highlights

Bamun or Bamileke artist

Mask

Bamun or Bamileke artist, Mask, late 1800s. Cloth and glass beads; 28 1/8 x 27 in. Denver Art Museum: Native Arts acquisition funds, 1949.4154

Mende artist

Sowei Mask

Mende artist, Sowei Mask, late 1800s. Wood; 17 x 7 ¾ x 8 ¾ in. Denver Art Museum: Native Arts acquisition funds, 1949.4178

Benin artist

Plaque
The royal palace of the oba or king of Benin was adorned with hundreds of elaborately ornamented plaques, such as this one, telling the story of court life. Cast in the lost wax technique by a highly skilled artisan, this plaque has the figure of a court nobleman or possibly a chief showing details of his regalia, including his helmet, an elaborate coral necklace, embroidered skirt, belt, and anklets.

Benin artist, Plaque, 1550-1650. Bronze; 20 ¼ x 14 1/8 in. Denver Art Museum: Native Arts acquisition funds, 1955.317

Master of Ikerre

Door Panel
In Yoruba culture, important artists such as the Master of Ikerre were commissioned by kings to create large and richly ornamented doors to adorn the entrance to a palace or an important shrine. The high relief carving depicts human and animal forms, from women carrying clay pots or musical instruments to men holding bows, arrows, guns, or flywhisks—and even some riding horseback. See also matching door panel 1980.58

Master of Ikerre (Yoruba, active about 1900-1914), Door Panel, late 1800s. Wood; 58 ¼ x 28 in. Denver Art Museum: Native Arts acquisition funds, 1973.357

Olowe Ise

House Post
A virtuoso carver, Olowe Ise was known for his technically daring high-relief style and energetic compositions. Kings and wealthy patrons commissioned him to create veranda posts and doors to add beauty and prestige to their homes. The post seen here stands over five feet tall and depicts a warrior seated on a horse, supported by two women and two men.

Olowe Ise (Yoruba), House Post, late 1920s. Wood; 69 x 10 x 10 in. Denver Art Museum: Funds from 1996 Collectors' Choice and partial gift of Valerie Franklin, 1996.260

El Anatsui

Rain Has No Father?
El Anatsui creates dramatic metallic sculptures that resemble great cloths. Employing a workshop of assistants, small pieces of liquor bottle caps are repurposed through folding and binding to create a surface rich with texture and color. The piece takes on a new unique character each time it is hung as the different folds that are created alter the light and shadow that feature so heavily on its surface. Influences on the creation of this piece include the tradition of kente cloths, the history of international trade between Africa and Europe, and the Rocky Mountains to the west of Denver.

El Anatsui (Ewe), Rain Has No Father?, 2008. Found bottle tops and copper wire; 153 x 239 in. Denver Art Museum: Funds from Native Arts acquisition fund, U.S. Bank, Richard and Theresa Davis, Douglas Society, Denver Art Museum Volunteer Endowment, Alex Cranberg and Susan Morris, Geta and Janice Asfaw, Saron and Daniel Yohannes, Lee McIntire, Milroy and Sheryl Alexander, Dorothy and Richard Campbell, Wayne Carey and Olivia Thompson, Morris Clark, Rebecca H. Cordes, Kenneth and Rebecca Gart, Tim and Bobbi Hamill, Kalleen and Robert Malone, Meyer and Geri Saltzman, Ann and Gerry Saul, Mary Ellen and Thomas Williams, Nancy and James Williams, Forrest Cason, First Western Trust Bank, Howard and Sandy Gelt, Gene Osborne, Boettcher Foundation, John and Eve Glesne, The Schlegel White Foundation, Jeffrey and Nancy Balter, and Tamara Banks, 2008.891. © El Anatsui

Fang artist

Ngil mask
This type of mask was worn by the Ngil—a secret society banned by French colonial rulers in 1910—during initiations, ceremonies, and processions. The society’s name means “gorilla,” and the masks arched eyebrows and broad, rounded forehead may be meant to model the face of a gorilla. The mask was originally white—a color that the Fang associate with ancestral spirits, death, and male virility.

Fang artist, Ngil Mask, late 1800s. Wood, fiber, and paint; 22 x 8 ¾ x 12 ½ in. Denver Art Museum: Gift of Fred H. Riebling, 1942.443

Sirikye

Bedu mask
Once a year, dancers don giant masks representing Bedu, an animal spirit that lives in the wilderness. They perform acrobatic dances, model ideal conduct, and chide villagers who have misbehaved during the year. The artist Sirikye defined the look of these masks, which feature large round faces, triangular mouths, and geometric patterns.

Sirikye (Nafana, born 1930), Bedu mask, about 1960. Wood, paint, and metal; 96 ¾ x 29 ½ x 4 1/8 in. Denver Art Museum: Native Arts acquisition funds, 1997.43

Yoruba artist

Yata (beaded panel)

Yoruba artist, Yata (beaded panel), 1900s. Cloth, glass beads, leather, and metal; 13 x 12½ x 2¼ in. Denver Art Museum: Gift of Mary and Robert Cumming, 2015.667

Yaka artist

Kholuka mask

Yaka artist, Kholuka Mask, late 1800s. Wood, plant fiber, and cloth; 20 x 23 x 21 in. Denver Art Museum: Native Arts acquisition funds, 1957.207

Yoruba artist

Figure (ibeji)

Yoruba artist, Ibeji Figure, 1900s. Wood, paint, and beads; 12 x 3 x 2 ¾ in. Denver Art Museum: Gift of Daniel A. Nidess, 1995.32

See more African art

Browse objects from the African art collection in our online collection.

Department History

The strength of any museum collection is largely driven by the vision, savvy, and motivation of the department’s curatorial team. Here at the Denver Art Museum, our Native arts department has had the good fortune of being under the guidance of some very strong visionaries, who were leaders in their field. We are proud of our legacy and take this moment to acknowledge the past curators and influencers who started us on our path.

The origin of the Native Arts department in 1925 is tied to the beginning of the Indigenous Arts of North America collection championed by Anne Evans, one of the founders of the DAM. She not only donated her own personal collection, but encouraged the support of friends with her enthusiastic and spirited patronage. These first years were led by curator Edgar McMechan (1925-1928). Four years later, in 1929, Frederic Huntington Douglas was hired. An art historian and anthropologist, he achieved national renown for his pioneering efforts to promote the understanding and appreciation of American Indian art as fine art and not solely artifact. During his nearly three-decade long career at the DAM (1929-1956), he assembled one of the most comprehensive collections of American Indian art, supported by a series of scholarly publications and groundbreaking exhibitions that influenced the direction of American museology, art history, and anthropology. During the 1930s, Douglas served as a commissioner on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. In 1939 he worked with then IACB director René d’Harnoncourt and a few others to plan and direct the “Indian Court” at the Golden Gate Exposition. In 1941, he and d’Harnoncourt co-curated the landmark exhibition Indian Art of the United States at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Douglas identified early the importance of working directly with Indigenous artists and making collections accessible to Indigenous communities. Over the course of his time at DAM he developed strong connections with such artists and community leaders as Ella Deloria (Yankton Dakota), Nampeyo of Hano (Hopi/Tewa), Mary Littlebear Inkanish (Cheyenne), and Maria Martinez (San Ildefonso). Douglas recognized the importance of collecting arts created at all points in time, which helped DAM develop strong collections of early and mid-20th century Indigenous arts. It was under the direction of Douglas that the DAM expanded the Native Arts collecting focus to include African and Oceanic arts (Douglas developed an interest in Oceanic arts while serving in the South Pacific during World War II). This foundational work set the tone for the direction of the Native Arts department.

Royal Hassrick then led the department from 1957 to 1962 before becoming DAM’s assistant director from 1964 to 1967. He was a prolific author and dedicated researcher. Prior to coming to DAM, he served as curator of the South Plains Indian Museum for the U.S. Department of Interior in Oklahoma from 1948 to 1952 and then assistant general manager of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board for the Department of Interior from 1952 to 1954. Like Douglas, Hassrick served as a commissioner on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board while a curator at DAM.

Norman Feder, a pioneer in the field of Native American art history and material culture, served as the curator of Native Arts at the DAM from 1961 to 1971. Feder had a deep interest in and a discerning eye for Indigenous arts. With a background as a hobbyist before coming to the museum, Feder belonged to a community of amateurs who specialized in the manufacture of artworks using Indigenous techniques and designs. While today such a background receives a critical response by Indigenous people, at that time his understanding of Native American techniques and styles allowed him to contribute meticulous, collections-based documentation to the study of Indigenous North American visual culture. It also allowed him to assist institutions in identifying what was and was not “authentic” in their collections. Through his passion, Feder inspired a new generation of anthropologists and historians of Indigenous material culture. During his time at DAM, Feder collected broadly and significantly expanded the museum's collections of African, Indigenous North American, and Oceanic arts.

Richard G. Conn served two non-consecutive terms at the DAM. The first predated Hassrick and Feder from 1956-1957, but Conn returned in 1972 as the curator of Native Arts, later advancing to become DAM’s first chief curator where he remained until his retirement in 1994. Conn brought with him an interest and understanding of Native Northwest Coast arts, fueled by his youth spent in Bellingham Washington, as well as a strong focus on Indigenous clothing. Over the course of his career, Conn, like his predecessors, became a generalist, and his publications eventually covered a wide range of topics related to the traditional clothing of Indigenous people, including the works of the Plains, Plateau, and Southwest regions as well as the history of glass trade beads in North America. He also helped start up the DAM Friendship Pow Wow in 1990 to serve and honor the local Native community. This Pow Wow has taken place every year since, including a virtual iteration in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nancy Blomberg came to DAM in 1990 as an associate curator, tasked with carrying on the trail-blazing work of the previous foundational leaders. In 1993 she was promoted to curator and Native Arts department head, and was then promoted to DAM’s chief curator in 2011. With the endowment of the position of Native Arts department head in 2016, she became DAM’s inaugural Andrew W. Mellon curator of Native Arts. She led the department until her untimely death in 2018. Importantly, Nancy’s commitment to building relationships with Native communities took center stage in her curatorial practice, and she changed the way the Denver Art Museum valued Indigenous perspectives. Abandoning a persistent hierarchy, Blomberg began actively listening to Indigenous people as they shared their knowledge and wisdom with the institution. This led to a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of Indigenous material culture, and removed some of the hierarchies inherent in museums and often problematic for Native communities. In her tenure, Blomberg established the DAM as a leader in the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). She specialized in classic Navajo textiles and was recognized for her groundbreaking reinstallation of DAM’s Indigenous art galleries in 2011 which brought focus to Indigenous artist in many new ways.

Over the course of the department’s history, many others served as assistant and associate curators. Kate Peck Kent worked closely with Frederic Douglas as an assistant curator in the 1930s and 1940s before going on to have a highly successful career as an anthropologist specializing in Navajo and Pueblo textiles. David Irving was an assistant curator who worked with Richard Conn from 1979 to 1984 and was a specialist in Navajo textiles. Ryntha Johnson served as an assistant curator for a time before moving on to positions at the St. Louis Art Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Rodger Echo-Hawk was assistant curator from 1994 to 2005 and was instrumental in working with DAM and various tribes on NAGPRA reviews and claims. During this time, he published Keepers of Culture which provides case studies on NAPGRA claims, and it remains a vital resource to tribes and museums today. Echo-Hawk is now a historian and published author. Moyo Okediji was DAM’s first assistant curator specializing in African arts from 1999 to 2008 and was instrumental in advancing scholarship and attention to DAM’s collection of African arts. He is now professor of African art and art history at the University of Texas, Austin. Polly Nordstrand was associate curator from 2004 to 2009 and was instrumental in bringing in key acquisitions of Indigenous contemporary art to the collection. This attention to contemporary art renewed DAM’s commitment to collecting such work and engaging living artists. Nordstrand is now curator of Southwest art at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center at Colorado College. Additionally, the Native Arts department began a curatorial fellowship program in 2016 with funds from the Andew W. Mellon Foundation. The inaugural fellow was Denene DeQuintal (2016-18) who has gone on to become assistant curator of Native American art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the current fellow is Christopher Patrello (2018-21).

Today, John P. Lukavic leads the department as the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts. He came to DAM in 2012 as assistant curator of Native Arts and was then promoted to associate curator and later curator. Dakota Hoska came to DAM as assistant curator of Native Arts in 2019. Together Lukavic and Hoska continue DAM’s long history of collecting, developing exhibitions, and scholarship, and both hope to continue and improve upon the good work started by their predecessors. The way in which we present Native arts at the Denver Art Museum is progressive, inclusive, and considerate of critiques of past museum practices. We encourage the integration of diverse arts into broader contexts to promote dialog and challenge our visitors to expand their understandings and appreciation for such arts.

Publications

African Renaissance: Old Forms, New Images in Yoruba Art. Moyo Okediji. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002.

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Membership and Museum Friends

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Lit up hallway of the newly renovated Martin Building

The Martin Building Project

The gallery for this collection is closed during the Martin Building renovation project. Standing seven stories tall, the Martin Building will house collection galleries, a conservation laboratory, interactive classroom space, a family activity center, two restaurants, and the brand new Anna and John J. Sie Welcome Center.