From the Archives: Salt Trade in Mali

Today, our post will highlighting an archival image from the National Museum of African Art’s Eliot Elisofon Archives. The archives houses over 300,000 fantastic images chronicling many aspects of life from across the entire continent of Africa over the last 120 years.

Every other week, this blog will highlight one image from the Archives’ vast holdings that ties directly to the works in Earth Matters. Selections are intended to broaden and enrich our understandings of the exhibition – and spark discussions about all the many ways that the Earth matters.

Here is today’s selection:

Salt TradeThe trading and transporting of salt, Mopti, Mali, Photograph by Maya Bracher, 1971, EEPA EENG 09870, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Salt is an integral, if often overlooked, part of our earth. Despite its ubiquity at our dinner tables, we often forget to consider where that salt came from – and the answer, of course, is the earth. The salt trade has been a significant factor in the history of Africa for centuries, a central facet of life not just in Ethiopia, but also much of Saharan Africa. In fact, the most famous deposits are in the deserts of Mauritania and Mali, the latter being the location of this archival photograph, taken by Maya Bracher in 1971.

Earth Matters seeks to reintroduce salt into the conversation about the substance of the earth. We see Berni Searle’s feet moving across the salt encrusted landscape of the land she traversed as an immigrant and Antònio Ole’s artistic, almost abstracted, portraits of salt pans. The rough texture of salt landscapes is painfully evident, and a reminder that our conceptions of what the earth looks are far from uniform.

But the above photo emphasizes the individual within the larger context of the salt trade, the personal within the landscape.  As seen here, salt from most sources in Africa requires work and preparation before it can be used or traded. Individuals touch and handle this material before it becomes the seemingly banal substance we are used to seeing. When this photograph was taken, convicts still made up the majority of workers doing this hard physical labor in Mali.

Anawana Haloba, an artist featured in Earth Matters, similarly uses salt as the medium with which to illuminate intimate, human connections to the land. In her series of Salt Licked maps (c. 1999) and her work Lamentations (2005), Haloba uses her tongue to trace meandering pathways through salt – a material which, as Ole and Searle have already shown, provokes serious visceral reactions, something Haloba capitalized on her a later work were the sounds of visitors tracing salt was amplified with microphones. In a site-specific work created just for the exhibit, This and Many More (2013), Haloba has installed vibrant rock salt, intended to decay and leave the visitor with the taste and smell of salt, in the way that salt has lingered throughout history, as the currency to buy slaves, as a focal point for the anti-colonial protests in India led by Mahatma Gandhi, and as a component in all human tears.

AnawanaAnwana Haloba’s piece This and Many More (2013) – photo via Instagram

Earth Matters Around the Web

2010 Mocambique and MalawiAn aerial photograph of Malawi, recently named one of the countries leading the charge on tackling hunger and undernourishment (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Our earth gives us water, food, minerals –  but how do we respect the earth and its resources while also striving for economic development and prosperity for all? Earth Matters strives to show these issues we all face, through the lens of Africa. Recently, stories of innovation and governmental commitment to answering these questions successfully have been front and center:

Maasai_TribeMasaai peoples gather in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Guest Voices: Earth Works at the Smithsonian

Happy Memorial Day! We at the Smithsonian hope you are enjoying a happy and relaxing day with family and friends.

Our guest post today features Jonathan Kavalier, a supervisory horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens, who was integral in making the Earth Works happen in conjunction with the Earth Matters exhibit. This partnership marks a first for the Smithsonian – never before has land art been installed on the National Mall. Learn about the process of making this amazing feat happen – with 30 million visitors to the nation’s capital looking on. 

merwe 1Strijdom van der Merwe’s piece, Land Reform, on Independence Ave. in Washington, DC – photo courtesy Jonathan Kavalier

As a horticulturist, I don’t often have the opportunity to participate in art exhibitions. So when museum curator Karen Milbourne approached me with an idea for a collaboration between the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) and Smithsonian Gardens, my interest was piqued. I met Karen when she attended a talk I gave on building gardens in Madagascar, a country I had the immense pleasure of living in for two years before joining the Smithsonian. Since I was already emotionally invested in Africa, the idea of collaborating with NMAfA sounded great, and definitely supported Smithsonian Gardens’ mission to enrich the Smithsonian experience through exceptional gardens, horticultural exhibits, collections, and education. What came out of many discussions was an idea to commission earthworks from several African artists in some of the Smithsonian Gardens.

moeLedelle Moe’s outdoor sculpture piece, Land/Displacements, outside the National Museum of African Art – photo via Pinterest

Now two years later, this idea has finally come to fruition. My job was to manage the logistics of installing these very different earth works involving sculpture, living plants, and earth moving. Add to that the challenge of working around existing garden infrastructure and the 30 million visitors that come through the Smithsonian annually, all without compromising the artists’ visions. I am very happy to say that the earth works have all been successfully installed, and some rice planting finally happened a few weeks ago for Ghada Amer’s piece, Hunger. We’ve actually been growing rice in our greenhouses for the past two months, eagerly waiting for the warmer weather to arrive so we can plant the rice into the Earth Works exhibit.

The most challenging, and rewarding, part of coordinating these installations was working around the visiting public during what is the busiest time of year for Smithsonian Gardens. Lots of time and effort were put into ensuring the public’s safety during the course of the work, but the reward of observing visitors witnessing the creation of these exhibits was priceless.

merwe 2Looking down Independence Ave. along the folds of van der Merwe’s Land Reform – photo courtesy Jonathan Kavalier

We hope you’ll stop by the National Mall this summer and fall and see these spectacular works of art that only could have happened with the partnership and hard work of Jonathan Kavalier and the rest of Smithsonian Gardens. They mark a true “first” for the Smithsonian, revealing the constant connection between art, humanity, and the land that each earth artist in the show has skillfully and distinctly revealed.  Don’t miss it!

Earth Matters Around the Web

800px-Oasis_de_Tergit_(10)A water well in the Adrar region of Mauritania – photo via Wikimedia Commons

There is no doubt that issues of water will be defining in the near future. In the face of climate change and growing demands on limited resources, how can we be responsible and still support economic growth? Rapidly growing African countries are often leading these discussions, as was seen this week in news stories from around the internet:

  • In opening remarks at this week’s thematic debate on Sustainable Development and Climate Change: Practical Solutions in the Energy-Water Nexus, U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic called for thoughtful responses to the worldwide paramount charges of sustainable growth with equitable economic development.
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo is moving forward with plans for the construction of the Grand Inga on the Congo River, which would, when completed, be the largest hydroelectric plant in the world. The plant is expected to provide a massive source of renewable energy for the growing country and much of the rest of southern Africa.
  • Women in Mauritania, with the help of the Mauritanian Red Crescent Society and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), have responded to drought conditions by working to promote and nurture more drought-resistant crops and work toward nationwide food security.

Learn more about the U.N.’s recent calls for environmental sustainability coupled with worldwide economic development in the wake of Rio+20, the conference that sparked this week’s thematic debate on Practical Solutions in the Energy-Water Nexus.

Guest Voices: Artist Christine Dixie

Christine DixieChristine Dixie in front of her work in Earth Matters, Even in the Long Descent I-V – Credit: Glenn Virgin Photography

Our guest post for this Monday features Earth Matters artist Christine Dixie. Dixie’s work features prominently within the “Imagining the Underground” theme of the exhibit, shaping ideas surrounding the exhibit of what investigations into the underground can reveal about our connections to the land.

In this video, produced by the Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking, Dixie tells us more about her connection to the landscape above ground – another theme in Earth Matters – particularly that of her home in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, found in much of her other work:

©Big Fish School of Filmmaking – all rights reserved. Refrain from downloading, copying, reproducing, publishing, transmitting, or otherwise using any portion of this film without the permission of Big Fish. Please contact them here if you would like more information or to use any portion of this footage. Please see below for full film credits.

Find more from Christine Dixie at her website here, and check out more from Big Fish here. What do you think the connection between landscape, art, and the artists who make that art is? What does it mean to connect with a landscape in a personal and intimate way? How does mapping affect that connection? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Producer/Director: Pumlani Veto

Production Assistant: Unathi Peyana

Camera: Siviwe Besman

Sound/Editing: Pumlani Veto

Additional Footage: Mark Wilby

Special Thanks to:  Chrisitine Dixie, Ruth Simbao, Lindi Arbi, Karen (Rhodes Sculpture Department), Rhodes University

Mentor: Neville Josie

Big Fish Supporting Team: Gail Bond, Connie Mosegedi, Tanya Sutton, Angela Campbell, Maureen Lesufi,  Lazararu Chokewe, Itumeleng Swartz

Training: Loreley Yeowart

Head of Technical: Paul Freathy

Head of Finance: Wilma Rall

Executive Producer: Melanie Chait

From the Archives: Ben Enwonwu in the Studio

Today, our post will highlighting an archival image from the National Museum of African Art’s Eliot Elisofon Archives. The archives houses over 300,000 fantastic images chronicling many aspects of life from across the entire continent of Africa over the last 120 years.

Every other week, this blog will highlight one image from the Archives’ vast holdings that ties directly to the works in Earth Matters. Selections are intended to broaden and enrich our understandings of the exhibition – and spark discussions about all the many ways that the Earth matters.

Here is today’s selection:

Enwonwu 2“Ben Enwonwu in his art studio in Ikoyi, suburb of Lagos, Nigeria,” photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1959, EEPA EECL 7027, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu (1921-1994) was one of the earliest African artists to achieve international acclaim and fame. His works employed a modernist aesthetic that was appealing to Western art critics of the mid-20th century, but also challenged prevailing ideas held by those same critics about what constituted “African” art. Emerging from a generation of Nigerian artists educated through the colonial British system (a cohort commonly termed the Murray School), and later completing his studies in Britain with honors, Enwonwu escaped conventions by referencing Nigerian and Western artistic traditions.

In these photos, Eliot Elisofon has recorded Enwonwu in his studio in Ikoyi, near Lagos. These engaging portraits give a glimpse into the way the artist worked and his inspirations. The oil work on the canvas behind Enwonwu portrays a village scene, one that references figurative painting while also employing the swift brushwork, thick oils, and flattened forms of modernism. The disparate busts in Enwonwu’s studio provide insights into his three-dimensional artistic process and reveal his unique style. Enwonwu summed up his approach in 1950, saying “Art is not static, like culture. Art changes its form with the times. It is setting the clock back to expect that the art form of Africa today must resemble that of yesterday otherwise the former will not reflect the African image. African art has always, even long before western influence, continued to evolve through change and adaptation to new circumstances. And in like manner, the African view of art has followed the trend of cultural change up to the modern times” (Ben Enwonwu Foundation (BEF), available online at, accessed May 13th, 2013).

Enwonwu“Ben Enwonwu in his art studio in Ikoyi, suburb of Lagos, Nigeria, photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1959, EEPA EECL 7025, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

These photos were taken in 1959, when modernism was in full swing, and a year before Nigeria would gain its independence from Great Britain. For Enwonwu, nationalism and modernism were linked with idealistic promise, something reflected in his works and thinking from the ‘50s and ‘60s. The violent Nigerian Civil War (or the Biafran War, 1967-70), however, would severely damage this dream for Enwonwu, leading to the painting Storm over Biafra, included in Earth Matters. See the work in the National Museum of African Art’s collection here, and make sure to visit the show in person at the museum. What stylistic and ideological differences do you see between the paintings Enwonwu is shown working on in these photos, and his later works? Share your thoughts below in the comments.

Earth Matters Around the Web

ImageA grey whale surfaces in its more typical habitat in the Pacific – photo via Wikimedia Commons

All sorts of creatures made headlines this week – as pests, as environmental portents, and even as protein:

  • Billions of locusts have descended on Madagascar, prompting the need for swift action for the island’s agriculture and a discussion about how to be better prepared in the future. Learn more – and watch the amazing video – here.
  • A grey whale sparked surprise and excitement when spotted off the coast of Namibia, the first one ever recorded south the equator. But is the sighting evidence of the much-hunted whale’s resurgence, or a result of climate change in our oceans?
  • A report released this week by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization had some unusual advice: Eat more bugs. The findings suggest that numerous, adaptable, and surprisingly nutrient-filled insects could help solve food insecurity. Learn more in the report below and here – along with some tasty suggestions!

Guest Voices: Tree Canopy in Urban Areas

Wheat Row in D.C.’s own Southwest Waterfront neighborhood (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

This week, we are excited to feature a post from Mark Buscaino, the Executive Director of Casey Trees. Casey Trees has generously partnered with the National Museum of African Art during the Earth Matters show to help extend its reach into community and environmental action in the heart of D.C.

A recent landmark study showed that tree canopy for 20 major U.S. cities has declined – 2% in 10 years, with an equal 2% increase in impervious cover (roofs, roads, sidewalks, etc.). While cities need roads and structures that eliminate space for trees and open space, the question researchers are trying to answer is: Is an environment dominated by asphalt and concrete detrimental to our health?

In the 1840s, Adam Jackson Downing, the father of New York City’s famous Central Park, spoke and wrote about the rejuvenating effects of trees and nature.  This concept is perhaps best understood in New York when you walk from the hustle and bustle of the city’s urban canyons into Central Park’s trees and woods.  You can feel the reduction in tension almost immediately, and most of us have experienced something similar in other situations and urban areas.


Southwest corner of Central Park, Looking East, New York City (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

But more than just a “feeling,” recent research has supported this view.  Trees reduce human stress levels, promote healing in hospital patients, improve test scores in students, reduce street crime, and a host of other benefits.  They also increase real estate values and increase business activity (customer “drop-ins”) – and no wonder.  Wouldn’t you rather stroll on a city street with a welcoming canopy of trees overhead instead of on a barren concrete slab exposed to the elements?

While much of this sounds like common sense, we often don’t listen to our senses, which is probably why tree canopy in cities nationwide continues to decline. In Washington, DC, the tree canopy has gone from 50% in 1950 to 36% today, but actions are being taken to reverse the trend. Washington, DC, has a Sustainability Plan and a goal to increase its canopy to 40% in 20 years, and we plant more trees per capita in DC than many cities.

So, when you think about cities next time, remember that 85% of all the U.S. population lives in them – 85%.  How can we make them productive, healthy and safe for everyone?

At Casey Trees we take the common sense view – count the trees in!

Earth Matters explores the idea that the Earth matters to each of us, even if it looks like and means very different things to different people. Casey Trees works specifically in urban areas to show the way that the Earth matters to each and every one of us – watch the video below to find out a bit more about their projects, and don’t forget to head over to to find out how you can get involved!

Today! Join Us for Garden Fest

ImageToday, May 10th, from 11am to 7pm, join Smithsonian Gardens and the National Museum of African Art for Garden Fest in the historic Enid A. Haupt Garden. This full day event will feature free classes and workshops, a free Zumba class, plenty of family-friendly crafts and activities, and a performance by the Grammy-nominated artist Cheick Hamala Diabete.

Further, this year Smithsonian Gardens has partnered with the National Museum of African Art to celebrate the recently opened Earth Matters. For the occasion, the museum will stay open until 7pm – make sure to stop by and check it out! And you can’t miss the spectacular Earth Works scattered throughout the Haupt Garden, featuring the work of Ghada Amer, El Anatsui, Ledelle Moe, and Strijdom van der Merwe. In a historic partnership, Smithsonian Gardens worked closely with the National Museum of African Art to bring works of land art to the Smithsonian for the first time ever. Check out some of the process in the video below:

The sun is out, the flowers are blooming – enjoy this beautiful spring Friday and join the Smithsonian for this unique event. We hope to see you there!

Earth Matters Around the Web

Love_Signs_on_Wall_amidst_Arab_SpringLove Signs on Wall Amidst Arab Spring – photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This week, the web was filled with stories of emerging and established centers of art around the continent of Africa:

  • Nollywood (or Nigeria’s booming film industry) represents the second largest film industry in the world, second only to  India’s Bollywood in terms of annual film production. And now, Nollywood will bring the film magic to Paris for an inaugural film festival – check out this article for more info and clips from some of the participating films.
  • Read about how Egyptian artists, filmmakers, musicians, and more have responded to the Arab Spring and created a thriving arts scene in the midst of political and social upheaval.
  • Learn more about Yegna – a new Ethiopian radio project that has cast five triple threat singer-dancer-actors as archetypal characters in a girl band, each meant to represent a different segment of Ethiopian society and promote female empowerment, focusing on girls between the ages of 12-15.

Watch their catchy debut music video above.

And make sure to stop by Earth Matters, too, which features the work of over fifty contemporary artists, and see how other African artists are shaping the conversation on some of today’s biggest issues.