The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
Mon–Wed 10:30 a.m.–5 p.m.
Thurs 10:30 a.m.–8 p.m.
Fri–Sun 10:30 a.m.–5 p.m.
When you visit a gallery, how often do you notice the actual room? Art is typically hung on plain white walls or displayed in clear cases, and there’s nothing to distinguish one gallery space from another. But in the newly renovated galleries of African Art and Indian Art of the Americas at the Art Institute of Chicago, the space stands out just as much as the artwork, while remaining neutral enough to serve as a backdrop for the objects on view.
The galleries, which opened June 3, present a clean, bright space for the artwork on display. Cases are arranged to create entryways to different parts of the gallery, and it gives the viewer the feeling of discovering the artwork himself. The four-year renovation project, which moved the galleries into the Morton Wing, resulted in a larger space. The two galleries are spread out over 7,500 square feet and feature blond wood to set off the dark wooden and sculptural objects exhibited. There’s room for more than 550 objects, which is the majority of the museum’s holdings in these two areas.
Start in the Indian Art of the Americas gallery, which has one brick red wall and a video with a poetic narrative and images of landscapes broadcast onto the wall. Look for woven baskets from the 19th century, painted ceramics from the early 20th century Pueblo tribe, and a stunning Navajo squash blossom necklace. The Indian galleries were missing signs and other information on my visit, so the space felt somewhat incomplete.
Enter the African Art gallery through the Indian gallery and you’ll find a really vibrant collection of art. Featuring one teal blue wall, the gallery also shows a video that puts the museum’s works into context. The collection holdings focus primarily on early-to-mid 20th century wood sculptures from western and central Africa, since American and European collectors at the time appreciated the artists’ abstract approaches to form. While there are fine examples of sculpture, the gallery offers a wide range of African art forms. The oldest objects are Malian terracotta pots ranging from the 11th to 14th centuries. There are dynamic masks and headdresses from 19th and 20th century Guinea, intricate wedding outfits from 1950s South Africa, and the standout object, a golden panel completed in 2008 in Madagascar. The panel was woven from the thread of Golden Orb spiders. The spiders’ silk is strong and elastic and weavers made threads from 96 strands of silk. The yellow brocade, which took more than 80 people five years to make, is an amazing work of art.
The warm, inviting space is an ideal backdrop for showcasing the Institute’s holdings, and the objects on view offer a great primer to the art of these two regions. While the galleries won’t be going anywhere, the inaugural celebrations include a rotating selection of artworks on loan. The golden panel is a loan object, and will only be on view through the end of October.