African works on display at Hood

by Ashley Ulrich | 1/27/13 11:00pm

by Cecilia Shao / The Dartmouth

The door is notable not just for its size but for the Islamic influence in its iconography. It was acquired by Alex Bortolot, a former assistant curator at the Hood and visiting anthropology professor. The exhibit represents the first time that the Hood is exhibiting the door.

In his curatorial report, Bortolot noted that the door's imagery communicates the previous owner's religious faith, wealth in livestock, success in trade and war and patronage for the arts. Hart called the door the exhibit's "showstopper."

"Evolving Perspectives" premiered Saturday in the Gutman Gallery and features 21 works from the museum's permanent collection of African art. The range of featured art hints at the diversity of the museum's holdings and documents the influence of a variety of donors and curators on the evolution of its collection, according to co-curators for the exhibit Nicole Gilbert and Katherine Hart.Dartmouth faculty and alumni began collecting African works for a museum shortly after the College was chartered in 1769, according to an essay on the Hood's African collections by Barbara Thompson, former curator of the African, Oceanic and Native-American collections. The early pieces were collected for their "ethnographic value" to aid professors in departments such as history and archeology.

Today the College's African works are displayed as part of the Hood's fine arts collection. The museum's holdings include over 1200 African pieces produced by native Congolese, Cameroonian, Kenyan and Tanzanian artists, among others, Gilbert said.

"The objects are both examples of culture and also works of fine art," Hart said. "They need to be appreciated for both serving a functional purpose in tribal social life but also for their aesthetic values."

The Hood's African collection has benefited from a number of sizeable donations and gifts by alumni and friends. Notable donations include Egyptian works from the estate of Mary C. Rockefeller, wife of Nelson A. Rockefeller, West and Central African works from the collection of Evelyn Hall and William Jaffe, West African masks and bowls from the Harry A. Franklin family and West African brass art from Arnold and Joanne Syrop, Hart said.

The Hood's own acquisition process has been influenced by the strong vision of its African collection curators, including Tamara Northern from 1985 to 1999, who increased the collection of pre-colonial West and Central African artworks, and Barbara Thompson from 2003 to 2008, who expanded the Tanzanian collection.

"Evolving Perspectives" includes a variety of these works, featuring wood masks, copper alloy armlets, wood memorial sculptures and beaded aprons, among other works. Although not officially a part of the exhibit, a selection of the Hood's African brass art collection is on display in an adjacent gallery.

In addition to the carved door, the gallery also includes a nkisi nkondi, or power figure, created by an unknown artist of the Kongo peoples from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. The figure stands at just 23 inches high but confronts the viewer with its enlarged white eyes which are meant to demonstrate the work's ability to see past the physical reality, Gilbert said.

The power figure would have been used in Kongo medicinal practices to cure a variety of ailments; it was considered to be activated when items were placed on its belly or mouth. Gilbert said that this figure was especially "well used and activated," observable in the number of nails hammered into its surface.

Other notable works on display include three 19th century head rests from Zimbabwe, South Africa and Egypt, all sculpted in wood but varying in design: one headrest includes a buffalo as its support, another is much simpler with a design of just four supporting pillars. These headrests would have been used by wealthy women to protect their hair or headdresses from being disturbed while they slept.

The gallery also includes a number of wood masks, including work from unknown artists native to Cameroon and Nigeria. The Cameroonian mask was sculpted to symbolize male moral and political authority, and would have been worn by men in community celebrations, according to Northern.

The mask was sculpted with full cheeks and a large forehead, and three smaller faces form a sort of crown above the main portion of the mask.

"Evolving Perspectives" also includes a large assortment of Tanzanian art, such as a small freestanding wood sculpture from the Shambaa peoples, a large initiation post from the Gogo peoples and a small medicine container fashioned from a gourd and adorned with glass beads from the Zaramo peoples.

The exhibit includes some interesting pairings of carved and wearable art as well, such as a small sculpture of a clan leader from the Yombe peoples of the Congo, which is displayed next to a fiber headdress similar to the one worn by the sculpture.

Although "Evolving Perspectives" represents just a small fraction of the Hood's extensive African collection, Gilbert said that the exhibit demonstrates a good range of its holdings.

As the Hood expands from its current space into Wilson Hall in the coming months, the museum will be able to increase the amount of African collection on permanent display, Gilbert said. The expansion will allow for 40 percent more exhibition space.

The Hood has been without a curator of its African works since budget cuts in 2008, although it will begin its first round of hiring to fill the position in February, Gilbert said. Hiring a permanent curator will allow the museum to resume its acquisition of African pieces, she said.

"Evolving Perspectives" will be on display through the end of the year.