Recent Acquisitions: Arts of Kenya

Mijikenda peoples, Kenya. Stool, 20th century (collected 1977). Wood. IU Art Museum 2014.266

A remarkable collection of over two hundred examples of the traditional arts of Kenya was recently acquired by the Indiana University Art Museum, making it the premier art museum in the country for research on traditional Kenyan visual arts.

The objects were field-collected in Kenya between 1973 and 1979 by Los Angeles collector and dealer Ernie Wolfe III. The collection is particularly strong in the arts of pastoral peoples, especially the Turkana and the Maasai, but it includes objects for everyday and special occasions from all over Kenya. About half of the collection consists of jewelry—bracelets, armlets, necklaces, earrings, labrets—and garments of hide, beads, ivory, and metal. Containers for food, drink, and personal items made of wood, calabash, hide, basketry are also well represented, as are stools and headrests. Walking sticks, shields, weapons, and tools round out the collection. A similar collection could not be assembled today because many of the objects are no longer being made or used.

Pokot peoples, Kenya. Headrest. 20th century (collected 1978). Wood, leather, glass beads, IU Art Museum 2014.247

As Ernie Wolfe considered a permanent home for this collection, his long friendship with Roy Sieber, who taught African art history at Indiana University from 1962 until his death in 2001, made Wolfe think of the IU Art Museum. Indeed, the collector has noted that Roy Sieber encouraged him to keep careful documentation of objects as he acquired them, and, as a result, each of the Kenyan objects has come to us with information about when and where it was acquired as well as how it was used.

Acquisition of this collection was made possible by the Raymond and Laura Wielgus Fund, which supports the arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Native and Pre-Columbian Americas at the IU Art Museum, with generous assistance from the IU Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President. Additional objects in the collection made of ivory, which can no longer be sold in the U.S., were given to the IU Art Museum by the Wolfe family in honor of Roy Sieber.

First shown in 1979 at the National Museum of African Art, this remarkable collection of the arts of Kenya will be on view in the IU Art Museum’s Special Exhibitions Gallery in spring 2016. Plans are also currently underway for a website to make images of the objects and information about them available worldwide.

Diane Pelrine
Raymond and Laura Wielgus Curator of the Arts of Africa, the South Pacific,
and the Americas. 

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