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‘Ancestors of Congo Square’ showcases African art at NOMA

Five long years, 376 pages, 225 full color illustrations and the essays of 48 prominent, scholars from the United States, Europe and Africa: That’s what it has taken to produce an extraordinary book containing information never before published about artworks from across Africa. It is the creation of William Fagaly, New Orleans Museum of Art’s Curator of African Art.

Ancestors of Congo Square: African Art in the New Orleans Museum of Art is the title not only of the book, but also of the exhibition that will open to the public on Friday, May 13 at the Museum in City Park; the show will run until July 17. While there are more than 200 pictures in the book, the exhibition will focus on only the 100 most important pieces in a museum collection that Fagaly has built during his 40 years at NOMA.

“Most everyone here in New Orleans understands the history of Congo Square,” Fagaly says. “I wanted to honor that history while, at the same time, honoring the achievements, culture and art of Africans in Africa.”

Which is why the opening pages of the book carry this message:

Dedicated to the memory of the dancers and musicians
who participated in the 18th/19th century Sunday afternoon
gatherings in Congo Square, and to the “ancestor” artists,
mostly anonymous, in Africa who created the artworks
celebrated in this volume.”

Because the book, published by Scala Publishers of London, will be sold worldwide, Fagaly wanted to inform readers from Berlin to Beijing, Paris to Panama more about what happened in this historic square adjacent to the French Quarter. So he invited New Orleanian Freddi Evans, author of a recent book about Congo Square, to add an historical essay.

Fagaly says that recognition of the creations of mostly unknown Africans as art is a quite recent occurrence. In fact, until great artists like Picasso, Braque and the German Expressionists regarded the works as art, objects from Africa were relegated to the dusty showcases of the world’s anthropology museums.

“Ancestors of Congo Square” is a crowning achievement for Fagaly, who came to NOMA in 1966 after receiving his Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Arts in Art History from Indiana University. Then named the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, its African collection contained “a few spears, a shield and a couple of pieces of art,” he recalls. Now, along with some careful purchases, extraordinary objects donated by generous local and national collectors and art dealers, and others promised as future gifts, NOMA can lay claim to one of the most carefully curated collections of African art in the country. It may not be the largest, but it is, by anyone’s standard, one of the most significant and beautiful.

Opening ceremonies for the exhibition take place on Friday, May 13, beginning at 6 p.m., during NOMA’s weekly Where Y’Art event. There will be music by Bamboula and a 7 p.m. walk-through with Bill Fagaly himself.

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