Saturday 16 August 2014

Abroad, 20th century African collection shines, may strengthen west’s theory

By Tajudeen Sowole

A vast collection of African cultural and religious objects, mostly of West African origin, which opened a week ago and currently showing at Maryhill Museum of Art, Washington, U.S. may inspire a revisit of perception and legitimacy about African creativity.

Known as ‘African Art from the Mary Johnston Collection’, and said to be numbering about 90 with provenance dated to 20th century, the works may further blur the line – from the west’s perspective - between cultural objects of native African origin and the continent's modern and contemporary art.

Yoruba (Nigeria), Egungun funeral bowl, 20th century, 22” x 13” x 13”, carved and painted wood, a collection of Mary Johnston.

The content of the exhibition was inherited from Fred W. Welty, Johnston’s older brother.

While the collection has not yet been linked to any known illegal exports from the countries of origin, it would be of interest to probe or question such a large collection in the possession of an individual. Also, given its 20th century provenance, the exhibition could strengthen a section of the west's erroneous perception of modern and contemporary African art.  

According to a press statement posted on the Maryhill Museum website, the exhibition includes masks, sculptures and other objects from peoples such as the Yoruba (Southwest Nigeria/Republic of Benin), Bambara and Dogon (Mali),  Bobo (Burkina Faso), Senufo and Baule (Ivory Coast), Ashanti (Ghana), Idoma and Ejagham (North West Nigeria), and the Bamileke (Cameroon).

However, the common factor between the Mary Johnston African art collection and some looted cultural objects of Nigerian origin is the German link. Welty, according to Maryhill Museum, acquired his African art collection from Germany, except only one said to have been given to him as a gift in Abeokuta, (parts of the defunct Western Region) now in modern day Ogun State. Welty was in Nigeria from 1960–1964, during the period he wrote a variety of articles about psychology and psychiatry. Sources on the Mary Johnston Collection agree that Welty "helped raise money for Nigeria’s first psychiatric clinic." And in appreciating his contribution, he was "presented with an eight-foot-tall carved wooden house-post adorned with Yoruba religious imagery and fertility figures."

From the looted Benin works to several other objects of African cultural origin, Germany was a transit at which most of the works were sold to other Europeans and American buyers. For example, the controversial 28 Benin bronzes and two ivories donated to the Museum of Fine Art, Boston (MFA) U.S., by Robert Owen Lehman, the heir to the collection of Philip Lehman, were acquired from Europe, most likely Germany. Despite the request by the Benin monarch and Nigeria's museum authority, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) for the return of the objects, MFA went ahead to open a gallery for the collection. But last year, the MFA seemed to have gained a legitimacy of the collection when a section of the Benin royal house endorsed the acquisition by taking a large "representation" of the Oba to the opening of the Benin Gallery in Boston where the works are currently on display. The delegation was however disclaimed by Prince Edun Kenzua, the brother of the current Oba.

Beyond controversy that may trail the acquisition of the Mary Johnston collection, the educational and historic values of the exhibition appears more important, at least for now. “This is the first exhibition of African Art to be presented at Maryhill,” states Colleen Schafroth, executive director at the museum. “We are looking forward to giving residents of the Gorge and southeast Washington an opportunity to explore the fascinating cultural and artistic traditions represented in the exhibition.”

Maryhill Museum hopes that the educational programmes of the exhibition will give visitors an opportunity to know more about African arts and culture.

The collection is described as having "works by unknown Yoruba artists make one third," of the entire pool.

Traditional African sculpture, the museum notes, "is central to tribal life and thought." Viewed via reproduced images posted online, the collection suggests that the area of interest, depicted by the unknown creators of the objects include chests, stools, headrests, walking sticks, pulleys, combs, dolls, and spoons, as well as figure sculptures in tribute to kings and chiefs.  For example, a three figure sculpture, Egungun Funeral Bowl, of Yoruba origin depicts two Ifa priests and one masquerade standing over a figure of a supposedly dead body waiting to be interred.

Also, comes a wild life study from the perspective of the Bobo people of Mali and Burkina Faso. It's a mask in painted wood titled Antelope Mask.

From the perspective of 20th century African art, the Mary Johnston Collection at Maryhill Museum comes with the possibility of sustaining west’s flawed perception of creative strength of modern and contemporary artists of the continent. The increasing presence of works created by naïve craftsmen and ritual priests of African origins in the mass media and museums of Europe and the U.S keeps blurring the line between cultural/religious objects and modern/contemporary art of the continent. Visitors to Maryhill Museums are not likely to know, for example that as at the time of the reign of great portrait artists of Europe and America, pioneer Nigerian artist, Aina Onabolu (1882-1963) was painting portraits that could not be pushed aside in the league of global art of that period. In fact Onabolu predates great American portrait artist, Andy Warhol (1928- 1987).      

As cultural and religious reference - not exactly African art of the 20th century- the Mary Johnston African Collection offers valid knowledge in dying cultural values of the people. "Some objects are made for home altars and village shrines, while various types of masks are intended to be worn during initiation rites, harvest festivals, religious ceremonies, funerals, and masquerades," the museum states.

The exhibition is produced with curatorial assistance from the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University and sponsored by Laura and John Cheney.

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