Art Preview: “Earth Matters” at the National Museum of African Art

The exhibit features works spanning two centuries, including the first “land art” installations on the Mall.

By: Sophie Gilbert

“Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa” is among the most ambitious projects in the National Museum of African Art’s history. Working with institutions including the US Botanic Garden and the National Museum of Natural History, the museum has brought together some 100 works spanning two centuries, including the first “land art” installations on the Mall.

“We’re all talking about Earth but not talking about it in the same way,” says curator Karen Milbourne. “You have people thinking about Earth in its relationship to a small sun in a giant universe—and notions of it as an ecosystem to be preserved—and artistic understandings of it as a source of pigment. I was interested in how we could connect the dots.” 

The exhibit features five sections, from “The Material Earth” to “Art as Environmental Action.” Items include an image of a Ghanian gold mine by photographer George Osodi (above) and a 19th-century Gabonese reliquary of a female figure whose skirt is made of sachets of red earth. 

“We live in an age characterized by territorial disputes and climate change,” says Milbourne. “The discourses worldwide are fundamentally about our relationship with the land. If we can help the public navigate these different systems of knowledge, we’ll all be better off.”

“Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa,” April 22 through January 5, 2014, at the National Museum of African Art. For more information, visit the museum’s website.

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.