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African Traditional Art

The author and art historian Poul Vad (1927-2003) formulated the conceptual basis of Holstebro Kunstmuseum. The museum was to make art intelligible as a universal phenomenon. For this reason Danish works of art are displayed side by side with foreign works of art and art from the non-Western cultural sphere.
 
Since the opening of the museum in 1967 non-Western art has been represented by the sculptor Poul Holm Olsen’s collection of African traditional art. As a young artist Poul Holm Olsen (1920-1990) stayed in Paris in 1954-55, and there he met with African art in the flea markets. He became fascinated by it to such a degree that he began collecting – a passion that lasted for the rest of his life.
 
Poul Holm Olsen’s Collection – most of which the museum has received as a gift from the collector – comprises approx. 1000 objects. Most of the objects are from West Africa – an enormous area stretching from Sahara to the Congo basin. 
 
Poul Holm Olsen was concerned with the sculptural and aesthetic qualities of the objects – not so much their ethnographical meaning. At the beginning of the 20th century European artists awoke to the different aesthetics of the African objects of art, and these become an essential source of inspiration of the new departure that takes place in European art around year 1900. Picasso makes use of the mask in his epoch-making painting ”Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), and artists like Matisse and Giacometti are also influenced by African traditional art.
 
In the 1920s and 30s Danish artists like Sonja Ferlov Mancoba and Ejler Bille became acquainted with African tribal art through the collector Carl Kjersmeier’s large collection. Moreover, Erik Thommesen and later on the painters of the Cobra movement took inspiration from African traditional art.
 
The African did not associate the masks with anything aesthetic in the Western sense. What mattered was what the object represented. The appearance of the objects was determined by their function, and they formed part of religious and social rites. They held magic powers, which were inseparably bound up with the sustenance of life.
 
The collection contains several main groups. Fetishes protected the owner against illness and often hold a small chamber hiding a nail or some hair of the person. The ancestor figures represented the ancestors, who were present in reality through the figures. The masks – which were parts of a complete costume (that is rarely preserved) – was used, among others, in the rites of passage of young people to adult life, in fertility rites and by the secret societies. The chairs expressed status and also formed part of rites. The exhibition case with the weights of the Asante Empire in Ghana and the exhibition case with the twin figures from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria occupy a special position in the collection.