By Danielle Smith
Special to the AFRO

Located among traditional masks, spiritual figurines, and tribal cloths you will find an exhibition that tells the untold stories of African women through cultural garments and pieces.

An introductory message for visitors of the exhibition. (Photo by SCOM student Danielle Smith)

Currently on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) isAdorned: African Women and the Art of Identity.” The exhibit takes you on a journey to the 20th century through pieces from Ndebele, Kenyan, Nigerian and Chadian women. “Adornedis part of the museum’s 2020 Vision initiative, which is a year of exhibitions and programs dedicated to the presentation of the achievements of female-identifying artists.

A pendant for a married woman’s headband from Ndebele, South Africa. (Photo by SCOM student Danielle Smith)

“The exhibition is designed to be a broad survey of what women’s artwork looked like historically in 20th century Africa. We tried to pull artwork from across the continent,” said Kevin Tervala, BMA curator for arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific Islands.  “There’s a lot of work from southern Africa, but we do have work from the central area where Chad is, the Sahara region, East Africa and West Africa. Each work has its own story and its own history and its own path through the world. We try to tell that as best we can.”

A married woman’s blanket cape from Ndebele, South Africa. (Photo by SCOM student Danielle Smith)

According to the BMA, this focus on women artists was inspired by the centennial of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. So 2020 Vision builds upon the museum’s recent efforts to expand its presentations of women and minority artists and become more engaged with the community. The BMA said it will spend at least $2.5 million this year acquiring pieces by female artists.

Museum visitor takes in pieces from the exhibition. (Photo by SCOM student Danielle Smith)

“When I saw the Adorned pieces, I felt a sense of pride just seeing the artwork and seeing how intricate it can be,” Chantel Edwards of Towson said.

Bowls made of gourd from the Sara Nar region of Chad. (Photo by SCOM student Danielle Smith)

The BMA said the exhibits also add to the diversity of the visitor experience. Most works found in an art museum are paint and canvas or sculptures and vases made of rich clays, The pieces in this exhibit are mostly comprised of glass beads, hide, gourds and thread.

A women’s wrapper made of indigo-dyed cloth. (Photo by SCOM student Danielle Smith)

The exhibit also touches on how women maintained pride in their cultural identities through apartheid, a period spanning from 1948-1994, which legalized discrimination in South Africa.

Museum visitors observe pieces within the exhibition. (Photo by SCOM student Danielle Smith)

“Seeing how they would bead and all of the time and effort really just gives each work so much more meaning on keeping their traditions alive even in oppression” said Susan Katz of White Plains, NY.

A ceremonial married women’s apron, goat skin cape, and fragments of a veil. (Photo by SCOM student Danielle Smith)

The BMA says that although it gets more than 200,000 visitors a year from around the world, one-third of them are Baltimore City residents. “We hope that Baltimore residents and visitors will be inspired by the works presented in Adorned,” Tervala said. 

The exhibit will likely be a welcomed addition for some. The BMA reports works by women at the BMA are four percent of its permanent collection. According to the BMA, there are 95,000 works of art in its collection. Of that number, relative few are works by art by African Americans.

“Adorned: African Women & the Art of Identity” will be on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through June 28. Visit for museum hours and details.