Diala Touré lifts an elaborately carved wooden mask from Sierra Leone from its stand on the mantle of her Roland Park home. "This mask celebrates a women's coming of age," she explained to a visitor on a recent spring afternoon. "The eyes are downcast," she said. "This indicates that the woman is humble."
The former curator of collections at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University, Touré is determined to help both art collectors and the public understand the importance of traditional African art.
"People often have a stereotype about Africa," said Touré. "You have some dynamic economies. People are not walking around with big bellies and big eyes and dying of hunger. People feel very comfortable with stereotypes. When you talk about African tribal art it isn't about one African, it's about a multiplicity of Africas."
Breaking those stereotypes means learning how African art influenced Western art. "African tribal art is like modern art, it's based around concepts," she said.
African tribal art pieces began circulating in Europe at the start of the 20th century, she explained. Artists such as Picasso, Durot, Matisse drew their inspiration from African tribal art. "Picasso was especially mesmerized by tribal art," she said. "He couldn't breathe. It was a foreign world. The art talked to him. Picasso and Matisse were really the first to value African art."
Touré credits African art with creating a new aesthetic for Western art. "Henry Louis Gates Jr. said, 'The face of modern art is a black face,'" she said. "Picasso created a new visual repertoire using African art."
For Touré, traditional African art is both a passion and a vocation. Born in Paris to parents from Guinea in West Africa, Touré said that her deep appreciation for the art of her heritage was ingrained in utero. "I like to say in an ironic way that I was exposed to African art in my mother's womb," she said.
Touré's father was one of the first successful African men to become involved in African art as a dealer and a connoisseur. Her mother was a linguist and collector of African art for more than 40 years. "My father dealt with the most important art galleries in the world," said Touré. "He is a fascinating person."
As a child, Touré accompanied her parents to collectors' homes all over Europe and traveled with her parents to Guinea, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Mali. She earned a doctorate in art history from the prestigious University of the Sorbonne in Paris. Fluent in five languages, Touré consulted with the National Museum of African and Oceanic Arts in Paris on the major traveling exhibition Vallees du Niger that opened in 1993.
"When people first hear my accent they want to place me in the Caribbean," said Touré. "But I am not an African American. I am a woman of African descent who migrated to the U.S., so my cultural identity is very peculiar here; I am part of a double diaspora."
During her four years as the curator of the James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Touré said she was continually amazed at the scope of the museum's collection, which ranges from works by European artists such as Picasso and John Constable, to African, Asian, Oceanic and noted African-American artists such as Gordon Parks and Robert S. Duncanson.
"Coming to Baltimore and seeing the depth and breath of the [Lewis Museum's] collection was overwhelming," said Touré. "It wanted to show Baltimore and the world how undervalued this collection was. It was like an unearthed treasure." Touré said the Lewis Museum's collection rivals those of prestigious academic museums at Yale and Emory universities.
For the Lewis Museum's recent exhibition "Displaying Prestige: Art Jewels from the James E. Lewis Museum of Art Collection," Touré "dug into storage" to display some of the museum's hidden 18th- and 19th-century paintings and sculptures.
Touré has also used her expertise as an appraiser specializing in African art. "There are some phenomenal collections here in Baltimore," said Touré, who travels around the country visiting collectors to advise them on the value of their holdings.
"You have a perspective that few people have," said Touré, a member of the American Society of Appraisers.
Touré left the museum position April 15 to pursue her passion for appraising.
"Being an appraiser means being a great listener and problem solver," she said. "You're given a problem: Someone has died, gotten divorced, or lost their collection through theft. Within the parameters of the story, you have to understand the challenge."
Touré enjoys visiting people's homes and seeing their collections "in situ" in order to gain perspective on how collectors regard their art.
"It's very revealing," she said of the ways people exhibit their art. She also strives to understand the story behind each collection. "How did the pieces come into their home and what do they mean to the family? Is the piece sentimental? And if so, because of that does it have more value?"
Being an appraiser also means treading lightly. "You have to be discreet," she said. "You have to have some psychological savviness."
That means knowing how to diplomatically tell collectors when Touré finds a fake in a collection. "I will politely point out if a piece has been mass produced," she said. "Some people are totally delusional about the worth of their pieces."
Finding a piece's provenance — its history of past ownership — can be difficult, "especially since a lot of collections aren't well documented," said Touré. "And sometimes you can have a great provenance — the piece belonged to a Rockefeller — but it's a minor piece."
Touré likened appraising art to being a lawyer. "You build your case. You line up the facts. I love to do research. It's my role as a scholar," she said.
"African tribal art is not created to be seen by everybody," Touré noted. "This is not trivial art. This is art with a purpose."
The James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. The current exhibit, through the end of April, is "The Art of Darkness: Primitivism and Modern Art." Admission is free. For more information, go to http://jelmamuseum.org.