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Smithsonian African museum exhibit and party transported guests to Africa Dec. 4

Elisofon's photograph of Pende minganji masqueraders in the Congo, 1970. One of their full body costumes is in NMAA's "Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon".
Elisofon's photograph of Pende minganji masqueraders in the Congo, 1970. One of their full body costumes is in NMAA's "Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon".
Photo by Eliot Elisofon. National Museum of African Art, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Smithsonian Institution, D.C.

"Welcome, welcome, welcome home," Johnnetta Cole, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art told guests at a Dec. 4 reception celebrating its 40th anniversary of photographer Eliot Elisofon's archives, and next year's 50th anniversary of the museum.

"Africa is the ancestral home of all of us -- and of all humanity," said Dr. Cole, resplendent in a hand-tailored jacket of kente cloth from Ghana.

Many of the guests dressed in African stunning garments. A 6'4" man wore a golden-embroidered sky blue bou bou long robe and hat from the Ivory Coast; another sported trousers, shirt, and hat of mud cloth from Mali; a museum docent wore a traditional "warrior robe"; and a tiny girl in her native Congolese ruffled dress, danced to mesmerizing music of the kora, an ancient, long-necked stringed instrument played by Amadou Kouyate.

The evening also celebrated the retrospective exhibit, "Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon".

The pioneering "LIFE" photojournalist traveled to Africa on 11 expeditions, beginning in 1947, to photograph that continent's people and landscape. He also collected thousands of objects of African art and became a major expert, collector, and lecturer on African art and culture. The free exhibit is the first to pair his collected objects with his exquisite photographs.

He "brilliantly and beautifully did what the museum does -- invite everyone to think and re-think Africa," Dr. Cole said of Elisofon (1911-1973), a museum founding trustee, whose photographic archive was one of its first collections.

"All of a sudden, you're transported to Africa, where Elisofon captured a sense of life and culture...he bridged cultures and continents," said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian's Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. "He brought Africa to this museum -- a fundamental act of humanity."

The Smithsonian official also praised Elisofon as "an artist, not just a photodocumentor."

In addition to being an actual artist, whose works are in the National Museum of African Art (NMAA) among others, Elisofon was also a chef and writer of many books, including a cookbook "Food Is A Four Letter Word" with an intro by his friend Gypsy Rose Lee. During his Hollywood photo shoots, directors including John Huston came to regard the color photography pioneer as an authority on color in movies. Elisofon directed the prologue to the movie "Khartoum", and also produced, wrote, and directed four TV documentaries on "Black African Heritage".

"In all that he did, he excelled," said exhibit co-curator Amy Staples. "He was self-taught and self-assured."

He said one of his life goals was " take pictures that are impossible to take."

Staples, senior archivist of the museum's Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, noted, "For him, nothing is...impossible -- His collection, his legacy, fulfilled that goal."

Both his children, Jill and Elin Elisofon -- who had accompanied their father on his last trip to Africa -- attended the event.

Jill Elisofon thanked the NMAA and its curators Staples and Bryna Freyer for "preserving, guarding, and bringing Father's legacy to life in such a memorable way."

Her father was a "larger than life personality, with joie de vivre, and an insatiable taste for life."

(He was nicknamed "Hellzapoppin" by General Patton, Elisofon's first cover shot for "LIFE". Another of his subjects, renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, said "This lad reminds me of a hungry orphan let loose in a bakeshop.")

The photojournalist's motto and epithet were "to help the world to see."

Elisofon's "iconic images shaped the way we see Africa today," curator Staples stated.

For more info: "Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon", National Museum of African Art,, on the National Mall at 950 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. Free exhibit continues until Aug. 24, 2014. (Disclosure: I was the Washington Correspondent for "LIFE", long after Elisofon was on its staff.)

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