The art of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, and North, Central, and South America—including the Glassell Collections of African, Indonesian, and Pre-Columbian Gold—are overseen by a single curatorial department at the MFAH.


Collecting Areas

Arts of Africa

“African” describes art from the diverse continent of Africa from 500 BC to the present. The Museum’s African art collection features masks, sculptures, headdresses, textiles, and objects from a variety of regions, cultures, and countries. Masterpieces include a refined cast-metal head of a king from the Court of Benin, and a Fang culture reliquary figure that inspired early-20th-century artists. Many artworks were created to reinforce the rank and prestige of rulers, or to indicate status. Others honor ancestors. The African galleries of the MFAH were expanded and redesigned in 2010 and 2015.

Arts of Oceania

“Oceanic” refers to native cultures of Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific islands. The ocean has shaped these peoples and their art. Many works were fashioned from wood and plant fibers like reeds, and adorned with paint, feathers, and shells. Precious objects were also carved from stone. These peoples believed the universe was governed by invisible natural forces appeased by ritual and art. Ancestors were revered. The artworks in the Museum’s collection of Oceanic art are distinguished by visually potent designs.

Pre-Columbian Art

“Pre-Columbian” describes the cultures that lived in Central and South America before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. Pre-Columbian art consists of two main regions: Mesoamerica—which includes Mexico and Central America—and South America. Over a period of more than 3,000 years kingdoms and empires rose and fell, leaving ruins and great works of art. Olmec jade, Maya stone sculpture, Nasca and Paracas textiles, and fine Moché ceramics are among the extraordinary artworks in the MFAH collection. In 2009, the Museum opened new, expanded Pre-Columbian art galleries.

Native American Art

“Native American” describes the art of the diverse cultures of North America. The collection includes ceramics, kachina dolls, watercolors, textiles, baskets, masks, and silver jewelry dating from 2000 BC to the 1950s. The collection includes works from the Apache, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Tlingit cultures. Artworks of the Pueblo cultures of northern Arizona and New Mexico given by Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg are the collection’s strength. In 2015, the MFAH redesigned the Native American gallery.

Special Collections

The Glassell Collections

Houston collector and philanthropist Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. (1913–2008) dedicated his life to the pursuit of excellence and betterment of the community. He was fascinated by gold art objects and, like the early cultures that fashioned them, valued gold not for its monetary value but for its spiritual meaning. He gifted and bequeathed his extensive collections, the labor and love of a lifetime, to the MFAH. His pioneer spirit, longevity, and generosity will be forever remembered through his legacy: the Glassell Collections of African, Indonesian, and Pre-Columbian Gold.

The Glassell Collection of Pre-Columbian Gold

Gold played an important role in ancient Central and South America. Ancient Americans valued gold for its spiritual power. Gold was considered the substance of the sun and possessed its energy. The Glassell Collection of Pre-Columbian Gold also includes rare and exquisite textiles, feathers, and wood, stone, and silver sculptures. Showing imagination and creativity and without written language, these artworks radiate mystery. The collection is without equal in the world. Redesigned galleries enhancing the beauty of these artworks opened in 2010.

The Glassell Collection of African Gold

From ancient times, gold was a symbol of wealth and power, and gold artworks were highly prized. On Africa’s west coast, gold was abundant. Chiefs used gold works to demonstrate power and prestige, and to promote political unity. Court regalia conveyed history and beliefs. The Glassell Collection of African Gold is considered the finest of its kind in the world, and it is the largest, most comprehensive collection of African gold in an American museum.

The Glassell Collection of Indonesian Gold

Indonesia is a country composed of more than 17,000 islands north of Australia and south of Malaysia. Its ancient Hindu name meant “Islands of Gold.” Gold and gems were believed to contain supernatural force. Gold represented the male power of the sun, burning with sacred and dangerous heat. Without parallel in America, this collection was the inspiration of Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. Additional works were generously funded by Isabel B. and Wallace S. Wilson, and the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment.

Publications

  • The Glassell Collections of the MFAH: Masterworks of Pre-Columbian, Indonesian, and African Gold
  • Gold of the Akan from the Glassell Collection
  • Miniature Size, Magical Quality: Nasca Art from the Glassell Collection

The MFAH Collections

To explore all of the Museum’s works of art, search the collection.