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Director's welcome | Summer hours | Purchase tickets online
August 1, 2014
We are happy to present a Hidden Power in African Art special edition.
During the month of August, the Museum will be open until 9 pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
What Hides Behind the Mask?
What is the secret of the empowering materials hidden in African art? Interview with Dorit Shafir, curator of the exhibition

Beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, and especially, magical materials: the exhibition Hidden Power in African Art invites visitors to embark on a fascinating journey to discover the magical materials coating the surfaces of the masks and sculptures and embedded within them; materials harnessing the spirits and the gods for the benefit of humans.

The exhibition offers a rare glimpse – the first of its kind in Israel – into the nature of "charmed materials," organic and man-made: monkey skulls, chicken blood, horns, claws, porcupine needles, crushed ginger root, chewed kola nuts, iron nails, and glass beads. Their use and their composition was revealed using X-ray images taken at the Israel Museum, and with the help of studies and research in recent years.

According to exhibition curator, Dorit Shafir, until recently, the western world regarded these objects in terms of their aesthetic qualities, while the materials covering them and inside them were discarded. In Africa, on the other hand, greater importance was attributed to these materials than to the statues and masks themselves. The masks and sculptures were traditionally used as ritual objects and as receptacles for magical elements. Amplified through their supernatural powers they harnessed spirits and gods in ceremonies and rituals.The artists who created these sculptures and masks were masters of considerable skills and talents - as can be seen in the impressive works in this exhibition.

How were the magical materials chosen?
"Some materials were chosen because they were supposed to contain a vital force, one that can change a simple wooden statue into a very powerful being. Other materials were selected due to their symbolic, mystical or metaphorical significance."

How were the statues with "magical ingredients" actually used?
"Many of the items found were in the possession of the African healer/sorcerer, to whom people turned in times of need. The healer conducted ceremonies through the use of spells, rattles, and chants. He used his magical powers, which according to their belief, improved health, fostered economic prosperity and social advancement, helped to detect crimes, harm enemies, and protect from the power of sorcerers.

Do these rituals still exist today?
"Some do, in certain places in Africa. Africans living in Israel and other countries travel home specially to consult a healer/sorcerer. Generally, Africans see themselves as 50 percent Christian, 50 percent Muslim, and 100 percent animists."

The Israel Museum African Art collection from which the sculptures and masks in the exhibition were selected, includes a huge range of objects that comprehensively reflect the sub-Saharan African cultures.

The collection comprises some 5,000 items, including statues, masks, jewelry, functional tools, and ceremonial garments. "This is one of the world's best collections of African art," says Shafir, "mostly donated by Americans and Europeans art collectors, who had the foresight to acquire African art objects over the 40's to 60's of the previous century. These collectors were very interested in African art, which, as is known, strongly influenced modern European art. Fortunately, they donated these objects to the Museum motivated by both a love of Israel and a love of this kind of art. Visiting the exhibition also offers the perfect opportunity to explore our vast and rare collections."

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Witchcraft and Spells
About the sculptures from the exhibition

Stones, shells, plants, animal remains, coins, and glass beads; all of these and more were mixed into the divination basket by the priest of the Chokwe people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the object's location in the basket, he predicted the future of the person across from him.

When a baby was born to the Teke tribe of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a sculpture was carved for him called a butti. The statue – which had buried within its cavity a part of the baby's placenta – was meant to accompany him to adulthood.

When a member of the Kota people of Gabon died, his friends created a burial figurine, mbulu ngulu. These relics were bundled together in containers to which a wooden figurine covered with brass and copper was attached.

The religious priest of the Muserongo people hammered nails into the nkisi nkondis believed to activate the magical materials that were added to or inserted in it. They were also believed to release ancestral power, and were added by the ritualist each time the figure's powers were called upon in order to activate its forces.

The god Eshu of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, also called the trickster god and the god of opposites, was simultaneously both old and young, male and female. This work was painted black in an effort to appease the gods, and medicinal herbs, manure, wood ash, and liquid from slugs were used, crushed and shaken and used for different spells.
Big Bambú Nights
Come experience Big Bambú at night
Climb the illuminated structure, cross the bridges, listen to the wind howling through the bamboo poles, and enjoy the Jerusalem night views from the height of 18 meters. Space is limited. You are advised to book your time slot in advance.
Tues, Wed, Thurs. till 9 pm.
Book online »

Family Activities
Activities and experiences every day of the week

An array of activities each day in the Youth Wing: Creating projects inspired by the exhibitions, traveling in Toy-Land, listening at story hour, and sculpting with recycled materials.
For details »

On Tisha B'Av, August 5, there will be no scheduled activities taking place in the Youth Wing
Gallery Talks
Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardobe. With exhibition curator Efrat Assaf-Shapira
Wed, August 6, 11 am

Scenes of Sana'a. With exhibition curator Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper
Ticho House, Tues, August 12, 7 pm »
Hidden Power in African Art. With exhibition curator Dorit Shafir
Wed, August 13, 11 am »

For Guided Tours  »