It was a night of Ankara, Kitenge, glitz and bling as the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art celebrated the second African Arts Awards Dinner at the newly renovated Arts and Industries Building on the Mall.
Celebrities from all walks of life came together to honor three exceptional women in the arts world — South African conceptual artist Mary Sibande, Egyptian sculptor/painter Ghada Amer and philanthropist Alice Walton, founder of Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas.
The evening also gave the museum opportunities to introduce two new additions to the institution. Under the leadership of Director Emeritus Johnetta B. Cole, an initiative to collect, commission and exhibit art created by women of the African Diaspora was proposed, and the evening event was the unveiling of this ambitious program to support the creative output of Africa’s many contemporary female artists.
It was also the opportunity to informally introduce the next director of the museum, Gus Casley-Hayford, who will take over the helm of the museum in February.
Touted as an evening “to inspire, to honor, to include,” patrons of the arts and of the museum were treated to a menu designed by celebrity chef Carla Hall of ABC’s Emmy Award-winning lifestyle program “The Chew” and “Top Chef.” Hall came into prominence with her win as a competitor on “Top Chef” and now serves as consultant chef to the Sweet Home Café, the eatery in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In the multi-course dinner, Hall said she was paying tribute to her heritage, which is primarily Yoruba from Nigeria. Black-eyed peas, spinach soup topped with coconut shavings and salmon cakes were some of the appetizers, while the main course included a kale and root vegetable salad for starters; pepper pot, striped bass and plantain johnnycakes with broken rice and as the main event, southern meatballs with homemade ketchup, golden mashed potatoes and a cocoa spice cake with ginger brittle for dessert.
Mary Sibande, the most junior of the awardees, was short in her comments, referencing the African concept of Ubuntu.
“I am because we are,” she said, thanking the museum for supporting her work.
Through her sculpture and photography, Sibande explores the world of domestic servants in her homeland through an alter-ego called “Sophie.” In her most recent piece, Sophie has been transformed into a High Priestess of traditional cultural practices, known in South Africa as a “sangoma.” Through her pieces, she actively rewrites her own personal history, and that of women in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.
Ghada Amer’s work has been included in several exhibits at the National Museum of African Art, most recently in the exhibits “Earth Matters,” where she created a public art piece in the Enid Haupt Garden, and “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory Revisited by Contemporary African Artists.”
Her work, which began through her richly embroidered canvases, is now highly sculptural, although she has explored many media including painting, site-specific installations and ceramics. Her protest piece representing injustices against women, “Blue Bra Girls” is being actively sought for acquisition by the museum in a major fundraising campaign.
“My association with the Smithsonian started 10 years ago,” Amer said, referring to her position as Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow in 2007. “I am a fearless advocate for women in the arts. I aim to be accepted as a whole artist, not just a brand.”
“We are excited to welcome back Ghada Amer,” said Christine Mullen Kreamer, acting director of the museum. “Her works challenge and transcend engrained ideas about beauty, power, success, sexuality and the female body.”
The Philanthropist Honoree for the Awards dinner was bestowed on Alice Walton, founder of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where she serves as chairwoman of the board of directors. Walton is the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton and also heads the Walton Family Foundation.
“What I want to talk about here is the word ‘include,’” she said. “I come from a town of 200 in Arkansas where there was no access to art or music.”
She enjoined the audience to “all work together and include everyone in the world of culture and art. I hope we can all come together and address the issue before us now.”
“How do we take it to people who don’t have it?” she said. “How do we do it? I care about how to make this happen. How do you get people to have access and creativity and culture? I am a cheerleader for the arts and I care about people having the opportunity to be included.”
The awards dinner also presented an informal introduction to Casley-Hayford as the successor to Cole, who retired as director earlier this year.
“We are custodians of a culture,” said Casley-Hayford, who comes from the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London, and in recent years presented two television series for the BBC examining the precolonial history of Africa. “We must take this task to heart.”