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In the first decades of the 20th century, prestigious European artists like Pablo Picasso, André Derain, and Henri Matisse revolutionized the art world by “discovering” African art, which formed a basis for Cubism and other avant-garde artistic styles. The aesthetics of African art—its bold forms, intense expressionism, and strong sculptural qualities—shook the art world and changed it forever, though few Westerners at that time recognized the complexity of African cultures or knew much about what the objects meant to the peoples who made them.
During the first half of the 20th century, the de Young’s collections of African art, like those of all major American museums, grew in a random fashion rather than by design—enriched in part by purchases, but mostly by donations from entrepreneurs, travelers, educators, and even Peace Corps volunteers. Some donors had strong aesthetic criteria, while others simply embraced anything derived from the lands and peoples of Africa. What has always made the San Francisco Bay Area unique in its collecting patterns is its long-standing interest in cultural diversity and multiculturalism.
Since 1971, when the department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas was founded, the African collection has been systematically developed to its current status. Today the de Young presents an impressive permanent gallery of African art, exhibiting more than 180 objects that emphasize the richness and diversity of art throughout the African continent, with sculptural primacy and arranged thematically.