Denver Art Museum galleries for Africa, Modern and Contemporary, Oceania reopening

The Denver Art Museum will unveil three newly reinstalled permanent collection galleries on May 14, 2023, reopening its African Arts, Modern and Contemporary Art, and Arts of Oceania collections to the public for the first time since campus construction preparations began in 2016. The updated installation will feature notable new and recent acquisitions, alongside a selection of collection favorites. The project marks the completion of the DAM’s transformation of its permanent collection installation. 

The Denver Art Museum galleries reinstallation in the Hamilton Building highlights the continuation of the DAM’s ongoing commitment to showcasing a broad range of art, centering artists as storytellers and creating an inclusive, thought-provoking environment for all visitors. In an extension of an initiative undertaken with the previous Martin Building reinstallation, all gallery labels and wall text in the reinstalled galleries will appear in English and Spanish to offer a bilingual and accessible campus to museum visitors. 

African Art 

The DAM’s African Arts gallery will showcase highlights from the museum’s collection of African arts, which encompasses approximately 1,000 objects, largely from the 19th and 20th centuries, across media—including painting, printmaking, sculpture, textiles and jewelry, as well as recent acquisitions of contemporary art. The updated presentation, spanning 2,300 square feet on level 4 of the Hamilton Building, centers a collection that illustrates the diversity, relevance and dynamism of creativity and culture across Africa. For the first time, the gallery will present an expansive and inclusive view of the arts from the African continent with works from the sub-Sahara, Egypt and North Africa.  

The presentation will be organized around three anchoring themes: the self, power and transformation and manifestation. The first section, exploring the self, will examine how beauty is portrayed and communicated through the objects, clothes and accessories in the collection, throughout history and in the present day.  

Works presented will include ancient and modern hair picks, ceremonial headwear and textiles. Among several pieces featured will be a new acquisition by Ethiopian artist Selome Muleta. 

The second section explores forms of power and how power is distributed and expressed. Objects on display, such as figures gifted as wedding presents and highly decorated furniture, will tell stories of wealth and commerce in pre-colonial Akan cultures, while contemporary works on view will address the effects of colonialism’s legacy. This section will feature several recent contemporary acquisitions by the museum, including works by South African artist Phumelele Tshabalala and Ethiopian artist Merikokeb Berhanu. Titled Untitled LXX, Merikokeb’s 2022 painting was recently featured in the main pavilion of the 2022 Venice Biennale. Other significant recent acquisitions of contemporary art by African artists are also included in the neighboring Modern and Contemporary gallery reinstallation. 

The final section will unite works from across time and place to explore the twin concepts of manifestation and transformation, with an eye towards universal themes of religion, tradition, birth, death and rites of passage. Objects highlighting these concepts will include female fertility figurines from Ghana, ancestor masks and spiritual text fragments, among others. 

“In thinking about how to present the museum’s collection of African arts, it was critical for us to center community perspectives and incorporate feedback from African immigrants, Black Americans and local stakeholder groups,” Adekunle Adeniji, the Anderman Family Fellow for African Arts at the DAM, said. “By uplifting an abundance of voices, the new gallery presentation will encourage visitors to perceive African cultures as living and diverse, as well as how to appreciate the contemporary and local relevance of African arts.” 

Modern and Contemporary Art 

The Modern and Contemporary Art galleries reopen with a broad survey of the art of our times. Encompassing 16,000 square feet across two floors, the newly installed galleries feature selections from the museum’s collection of approximately 8,000 artworks made between 1900 and today, as well as from collecting areas in African arts, Indigenous arts of North America, Latin American art, photography and textile art and fashion. Featuring artists from around the globe, the reinstall looks anew at the work of historically recognized figures, established contemporary artists and important emerging voices. 

Organized by theme rather than by chronology, the reinstallation acknowledges and transcends art historical movements, showcasing visual connections and common interests. Thematic groupings include Uncanny Objects, Renegade Bodies, Intimacy + Intuition, Precarious Life, Gravity + Gesture, Resplendent Terror, Elemental, Material Matters, Truth + Beauty, Metamorphosis and Kinship. A dedicated gallery will highlight the work of American artist Manuel Neri, featuring two examples of his life-size figurative sculptures alongside several of his daring drawings of the human body. 

Artworks by notable artists represented in the galleries include a headless and hollowed humanoid made of burlap by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Mark Bradford’s poignant abstractions comprising torn paper, Robert Colescott’s painting of race-relations, Elaine de Kooning’s monumental painting of a bullfight, the quiet and minimalist lines of Agnes Martin, a double portrait by Henri Matisse, Julie Mehretu’s symphonic interpretation of a Wagner opera, a beguiling still life by Joan Miró, Robert Motherwell’s triumphant abstractions, a haunting dreamscape by Stacey Steers, an installation of Toshiko Takaezu’s sensuous ceramic vessel forms and Dyani White Hawk’s blend of modernist abstract painting that honors beadwork and porcupine quillwork by Indigenous women, among others. Recent acquisitions on view include works by Cornelius Annor, Federico Herrero, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Raquib Shaw, Emmanuel Taku and Sandra Vásquez de la Horra. 

Returning visitor favorites that have been off view for more than a decade include Jennifer Bartlett’s Plaid House, Dan Flavin’s illuminated and fluorescent sculpture Untitled (for A.C.), Jennifer Steinkamp’s mesmerizing Rock Formation, a digital video projection depicting a waterfall of fabric gliding over unseen rocks. Richard Serra’s monumental steel sculpture Basic Maintenance will be a welcome surprise to visitors old and new.  

“In recent years, the DAM has acquired significant new works by Trenton Doyle Hancock, Julie Mehretu, Emmanuel Taku and an incredible series of portraits titled Land of Dreams by Iranian American photographer Shirin Neshat,” Rory Padeken, Vicki and Kent Logan Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, said. “Presented in dialogue with existing works in the collection, these recent acquisitions help us to broaden our perspectives on our contemporary moment.” 

Arts of Oceania 

Installation photography © and courtesy of Pātaka Art + Museum.
Niki Hastings-McFall, “Afio Mai” from Polynisation Series, Pātaka Art + Museum, Porirua, Wellington, New Zealand, 2013. ©Niki Hastings-McFall. Installation photography © and courtesy of Pātaka Art + Museum.

The Arts of Oceania gallery will reopen with the presentation of a new temporary exhibition, titled Islands Beyond Blue: Niki Hastings-McFall and Treasures from the Oceania Collection, that showcases the work of celebrated contemporary artist Niki Hastings-McFall in conversation with works from the DAM’s Arts of Oceania collection. The first exhibition to center arts of Oceania at DAM since 2016, Islands Beyond Blue will be situated on the third floor of the Hamilton Building across 1,700 square feet and remain on view for a full year.  

The exhibition will be anchored with site-specific work by Niki Hastings-McFall, who is of Sāmoan and Pākehā descent and has been credited with shepherding contemporary Pacific art onto an international stage. Known for her large-scale “lei bombing” installations, Hastings-McFall will use hundreds of synthetic lei, garlands of flowers, to create an installation. Her work, courtesy of Whitespace Contemporary Art, NZ, will be presented in dialogue with approximately 30 treasures—Pacific Peoples prefer the term “treasures” over “objects”—from the DAM’s Arts of Oceania collection that illustrate regional historic arts alongside new innovations. 

“Hastings-McFall’s immersive, meditative installations promote a sense of human connection through universal themes of loss, resilience and artistry, while visitors are at the same time confronted with the details of a history not often taught in the United States,” John P. Lukavic, PhD, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts, whose department includes the Arts of Oceania collection, said. 

“Through this inaugural exhibition, DAM aims to dispel romantic notions of the Pacific Islands as a tourist’s paradise through a nuanced exploration of the area’s vibrant cultural landscape, challenging visitors to examine their perception of this vast and extremely diverse region,” Emelihter Kihleng, PhD, the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow for Native Arts at the DAM, and curator of this presentation, added. 

A full reinstallation of the Denver Art Museum galleries for Arts of Oceania, scheduled to open in 2024-2025, will further highlight the museum’s holdings of approximately 1,000 treasures that represent the vast artistic heritage of Oceania. 

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