The Art and Artifacts Division collects, documents, preserves and interprets art and artifacts by and about peoples of African heritage throughout the world. Fine and applied art and material culture objects are collected from the seventeenth century to the present with emphasis on the visual arts of the twentieth century in the United States and Africa. The Division collects art and artifacts encompassing four broad areas: traditional African art; painting and sculpture; works on paper (i.e. drawings, prints, illustrations, posters and reproductions); and textiles and artifacts.
Traditional masks, bronze adornment items, statuary, instruments, utilitarian objects and weaponry form the core of the African art holdings. These objects document aesthetic and ethnographic dimensions of traditional African societies and African cultures in South America.
The collection of painting and sculpture surveys the history of art by African American artists from the late nineteenth century to the present. The majority of works in this category represent the Harlem Renaissance, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the post-World War II era and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Urban genre themes and depiction of African American life dominate the work from this period. Other subjects include landscapes, portraiture and religion. There are also non-figurative and abstract works and assemblages from the 1950s forward.
Posters and reproductions comprise the largest group in the category of works on paper. There are well over 4,000 posters in the collection documenting political, social and cultural activities and events. Also included are nineteenth century lithographs and engravings depicting people of African descent in Africa and the diaspora as portrayed by artists from Europe and throughout the Western hemisphere. Original fine art prints and drawings depict social themes and concerns of the WPA and Civil Rights eras. Contemporary works represent a plethora of styles and themes.
The collection of artifacts includes a wide range of two- and three-dimensional objects, such as slave shackles, medallions, commemorative coins, currencies and stamps and buttons depicting civil rights themes and political campaigns, slogans and organizations. Textile holdings include quilts, uniforms, African women's fashion, strip weaving, tie-dyed and commemorative cloth and appliques.