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The Flint Institute of Arts has a new African art exhibition 

click to enlarge Fang peoples, Gabon, Ngumba Figure, no date, wood, 21 inches.

Collection of Dr. Robert Horn

Fang peoples, Gabon, Ngumba Figure, no date, wood, 21 inches.

Dr. Robert Horn says his fascination with African art started when he was a teenager studying art and art history in the 1950s. But the first time he ever purchased African art was when he found a mask from the Senufo culture in a Greenwich Village, New York art gallery in the 1960s.

"It was relatively inexpensive, so I bought it," he says. "I didn't have any money, particularly, but I could afford that. And so that was the beginning — 150 or so pieces later, here we are."

A psychiatrist who now works and resides in Rochester, New York, Horn has continued to collect African art, amassing a sizable trove of 20th century works. He caught the attention of the Flint Institute of Arts director John Henry, who invited him to exhibit his collection in the museum. Starting this weekend, Horn's collection finds a temporary home in Flint as part of the museum's Black History Month celebrations.

It's the first time Horn has ever exhibited his collection outside of his home. It's also part of a two-pronged approach to celebrating African history at the museum. Horn's collection opens alongside Miracles and Glory Abound, an exhibition of found-object "power figures" made by Pittsburgh-based artist Vanessa German. Both exhibitions open to the public on Sunday.

Horn's FIA exhibition features more than 70 objects from more than 40 African cultures, including masks, figurines, and beads. Most of the objects were made between 1940 and 1970 by unknown artists.

"They don't get enough recognition as great art, but I think gradually as people are noticing African-American work, they're going to look back at some of the powerful tribal pieces that came out of Africa itself," he says.

Horn admits he did not acquire his collection with the idea of ever being displayed in a museum — he says his main driving force was finding works that he liked that he could have in his home and office. Nevertheless, he has amassed an important collection of culturally and artistically significant works. The collection caught the attention of Detroit Institute of Arts African art curator Nii O. Quarcoopome, who conducted a curatorial review. That review was used to help curate the FIA exhibition, and an essay penned by Quarcoopome will be included in the exhibition's catalog.

One highlight, Horn says, is a mask from a tribe in Congo that had a big influence on Pablo Picasso, its features appearing in the artist's sketches and paintings of his so-called African period.

"It's a reflection of what African artists have done for modern and contemporary art," Horn says. "I look at these masks and figures and the influences they've had on the whole diverse group of artists like Picasso and Matisse and many, many others over the years."

Tracee Glab, curator of collections and exhibitions at FIA, says the exhibition joins the FIA's three African art galleries, adding to the museum's offerings. She says Horn's collection will be broken up into two sections; one by geography and the other by theme. She says she hopes the collection will help dispel the idea that African culture is a monolith.

"I think what's interesting about this exhibition is that it shows the diversity of African art," she says. "Every culture has a different way of expressing themselves, and how they use the objects as well. So I hope that when people come to see this exhibition, they walk away with a knowledge of the diversity of both the cultures themselves, as well as the techniques of how things are made."

Engaging African Art: Highlights from the Horn Collection opens on Sunday, Jan. 27 at the Flint Institute of Arts; 1120 East Kearsley St., Flint; 810-234-1695; flintarts.org; Admission is free to FIA members, residents of Genesee County, and children under 12; otherwise $10. Runs through May 26.

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