The African art collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art contains about 480 works. The collection's focus is on masks and figures from West and Central Africa, mostly carved in wood. The collection also contains works made from a variety of other materials, such as ivory, copper alloys, gold, fibers, beads, animal skins, and earthenware. While most of these objects were made in the late 19th or early 20th century, two fragmentary terracotta figures, one from Nigeria, the other from Mali, date to 500 BC and AD 1000, respectively, thus shedding light on the continent’s ancient cultural history. Recent acquisitions of contemporary works by leading African artists, including Hervé Youmbi, Kendell Geers, and Pascale Marthine Tayou, represent an expansive view of the arts of Africa to the present day.
The collection’s strengths include a group of metal and ivory objects from the ancient Kingdom of Benin in contemporary Nigeria (1500–1897) and a number of masks and figures in various media from different peoples in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Cleveland Museum of Art acquired its first African works of art in 1915, a year before its doors opened to the public. In 1929 the museum received a number of works from the Mangbetu peoples of northeastern Congo, acquired in Africa a year earlier by noted Cleveland artist Paul Travis. The core of the collection consists of the 100-some objects donated in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Cleveland resident Katherine C. White, who was one of the first to build an important collection of African art in the United States and was instrumental in bringing a number of landmark exhibitions to the Cleveland Museum of Art.