Miami University Art Museum - Spring 2014 - African Art Capstone Exhibition Guide

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African Art:

Confronting Assumptions, Challenging Values

Gallery Guide Spring 2014

January 28-May 17

Acknowledgements This exhibition is the final project for the Fall 2013 Senior Capstone seminar for the Art and Architecture History major at Miami University. With the help of Dr. dele jegede and Jason E. Shaiman, Curator of Exhibitions, students were able to gain hands-on experience and an understanding of the curatorial process. Beginning with research and in-class discussions on readings on a variety of topics pertaining to the field of African art, the students directed the vision of the exhibit, selected the objects, and individually and collaboratively wrote the associated text. Special thanks to Dr. Robert Wicks, Director; Laura Stewart, Collections Manager/Registrar; Mark DeGennaro, Preparator; Scott Kissell, Photographer; Bailey Metzger, Curatorial Intern; Morgan Murray, Graphic Design major; and to all of the Art Museum staff for their support on this project. Appreciation is also extended to the Department of Art for supporting the publication of this gallery guide and this annual collaboration.

Capstone students left-right: Marcus Gray, Marshal Farmer, Jacquie Wallace, Victoria Azzi, Mallory Hellenthal and Rebecca Cassidy.

Knowing African Art What typically comes to mind when you hear the phrase “indigenous African art?� Terms such as tribal, exotic, primitive, non-Western, fetish, or even pagan have permeated discussions in the African art world. Colors such as orange, yellow, red, black and green are commonly visualized in patchwork-like patterns that are found in a diverse array of textiles. Materials such as earthenware, fiber, bronze, gold and wood in particular epitomize the tactile nature of African objects. Historically, viewers as well as historians and museum curators have relied on these passed-down stereotypes and assumptions that continue to frame our knowledge and understanding of African art. Many exhibitions explore the identity of objects and how material items relate to the parent culture in which they were created. Often overlooked is the question of authenticity and its impact on the cultural value of an object. What happens when indigenous materials are removed from a parent culture and incorporated into a different culture, or are acquired for private and public collections? Focusing on how shifting values influenced by a variety of contexts define what is authentic, the ephemeral quality of judgments placed on African art are brought to the forefront. From religious materials to everyday utilitarian items, judgments of value are weighed and ultimately constructed by the viewer and their experience with these objects. In order to gain insight into the processes that occur when making these judgments, think beyond convention. Confront stereotypes. Challenge assumptions.


Authenticity The question of authenticity is not as readily evident as one might think. A multitude of considerations affect this determination. Historically, an authentic African art piece has been defined mainly through its creation and traditional usage in its parent culture. This notion has been largely shaped through the colonial encounter that has brought Western expectations to bear on the collection and reception of African art. Objects on the next page illustrate nuances of this larger issue. At first glance, simply looking at the material quality of the wood and seeing apparent patina and signs of usage, one would not be at fault for assuming the objects have been culturally employed. However, high demands for ‘authentic’ African art have led to the creation of what would appear to be natural aging and wearing processes. What if a newly carved wood object with decorations was buried in the ground for several months to darken the patina? How easy would it be to detect the difference between natural and artificial aging of an object from looking at the surface? On a culturally authentic level, these staffs show stylistic deviations that would suggest that their creators were not thoroughly knowledgeable about, or familiar with the actual objects that they purport to create. For example, the Shango staff is too long for the practical purpose of votive dancing, while this agricultural staff is shorter than usual. So if these two objects do not fit the definition for authenticity, what other values can be placed on them through their acquisition, collection and study?

(Left) Senufo people, Mali, Burkina Faso & Côte d’Ivoire Agricultural staff (daleu), 20th century Wood, 25 inches long Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1981.7.30

Possibly a tefalipitya “hoe work girl” that honors the master of cultivation, the female figure carved at the top represents a pitya, or a beautiful unmarried woman. The reference to an unmarried woman may allude to the concept of fertility in an agricultural sense. These staffs are normally close to 48 inches long and are carved from a single piece of wood.

(Right) Yoruba people, Nigeria & Benin Ceremonial staff of Shango, 20th century Wood, 27 3/8 inches long Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1976.SC.16.12

One of the most venerated orisha (deities) in the Yoruba culture, Shango was once a king among the people in the Oyo Kingdom (1400s1835). The double-headed axe that appears at the top of this staff is one of Shango’s iconographic symbols, referring to his ferociousness as the god of thunder and lightning.


Masks Masks are the visual highlights of masquerading traditions in Africa. The design and appearance of masks range from the simple to the extravagant and are constructed from a range of materials including wood, leather, animal hair and natural pigments. A mask is used to disguise or hide the identity of an individual so he can transform and portray characteristics of another entity. Masks constitute the focus for the audience witnessing a ceremony and are categorized in three main groups: headdresses, face masks, and helmet masks. African masks are typically worn during celebrations and festivities in which masquerades take center stage. These alternate façades aid in clarifying the narrative in performances and bridge the gap between the natural and the spiritual. It is through the masks that the audience understands the phenomena being represented: beasts, gods, deities, life and death, good and evil, power and prosperity, or even inconsequentiality and struggle. Consider the perspective of a person from the parent culture who wears a ceremonial mask in a masquerade. What value of energy and life force can be associated with a headdress, face mask or helmet mask if the object is created simply for decoration and never utilized?

Funeral rite with men wearing masks, early 20th century Korhogo & Bundyali regions, Côte d’Ivoire Photographer unknown Source:

Senufo people, Mali, Burkina Faso & Côte d’Ivoire Janiform double-headed helmet mask (wanyugo), 20th century Wood with polychrome Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1985.99

Enormous horizontal masks composed of various animal motifs that represent spirits are called funeral head masks. People outside of the Senufo culture use the term “fire-spitter” when referring to these masks used by both Poro and non-Poro male societies. These helmet masks embody an aggressive supernatural power that combats entities that might disrupt the society. The powerful features of antelopes, buffaloes, crocodiles, humans and other creatures are combined to symbolize power and to evoke important myths. They are also used in anti-witchcraft ceremonies. Written by Marcus Gray


Dan people, Côte d’Ivoire & Liberia Face mask (gunye ge), 20th century Wood, raffia and natural pigment Gift of Clive Getty 2010.33

Dan masks are carved in wood and stained with brown dye. They are usually created with high foreheads, pouting mouths, and sharp chins. The sacred Dan masks are guarded by the head of the “secret society” of the leopard, known as the “go master.” The master is responsible for the initiation rites of young men into adulthood. These masks are used as protection and for communication with the spirit world. The creators of these masks believe that their world is split into two domains: the human domain, represented by the community and its people, and the spiritual domain, represented by the forest and its spirits. Written by Marcus Gray

Mali Chi Wara headdress (male antelope), ca. 1973 Wood Gift of Ralph (‘65) and Barbara Drake (‘68) Bresler 1985.106

Adulthood is acknowledged in the Bamana culture after an individual has successfully completed six stages of initiation. The fifth stage of initiation, called the Chi Wara, provides the initiate with moral and spiritual instruction. The initiation ceremony is named after a mythological protagonist, Chi Wara, who came down from the heavens and taught the Bamana people how to farm. Preoccupied with their bountiful harvests, the people neglected to pay homage to the one who had given them the knowledge to farm. Chi Wara buried his essence in the ground until the people redeemed themselves; thus creating the tradition of teaching initiates an important cultural concept. Written by Marshal Farmer


Stools & Chairs While stools and chairs may be found in every village, the more sculpted and embellished pieces of African seats are intended for royalty. Like most objects created for chiefs, stools in particular symbolize the values of power and prestige that come with being a king or queen mother. Each stool is created for a specific person and is believed to possess the spiritual energy of its owner. A stool’s basic shape is consistent from one group or peoples to another. Cultural distinctions can be found in the detail of the support, the carving of the wood and any additional incised patterns. The chair was probably introduced in the 19th century in the wake of colonization, lending a European flair to the previous styles. The immense importance that African societies place on these and other objects goes beyond mere functionality as exemplified by the ornate decoration and sculpted features of prestige chairs and carved wood stools. Can the removal of a stool, for example, from the parent culture separate the spiritual value of the object from the former owner?

Akan chief Ejisuhene Nana Diko Pim III sitting in a prestige chair, 1976 Akan people, Burkina Faso Photographer unknown Source:

Asante people, Ghana Chief’s prestige chair (asipim), late 19th or early 20th century Wood, leather, brass and animal hair Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1982.150

African chairs possess an elevated status as commissioned wares for Asante chiefs and are used primarily during meetings. The seats are not only utilitarian and functional, but they also symbolize the values of power and prestige that come with being a king or queen mother. An emblematic design would have been carved on the reverse side of the missing wood panel that denoted the specific user’s position or status. The design of these chairs was probably introduced in the 19th century by colonial administrations, thus influencing existing local styles. Written by Marshal Farmer


Asante people, Ghana Prestige stool, early 20th century Wood Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1991.515

Prestige stools for chiefs and kings are used primarily for ceremonial purposes. Often intricately designed, they are carved from a single piece of wood. The crescent-shaped seat portion of the stool creates an elegant and sculpted form. For the Asante chiefs and kings, the stools possess the spiritual energy of the owner and are only intended for use by that one individual during his life. Once the owner passes from this world, the stool is tilted on its side and becomes a shrine that is decorated in honor of the deceased. Written by Jason E. Shaiman

Textiles and Tools Textiles are some of the material goods most recognized as art by audiences around the world because of their rich aesthetic value. Often possessing brilliant coloration and intricate patterns such as we see in kente cloths, African textiles maintain formal characteristics that easily allow them to transcend utilitarianism. In the markets, many of the same artists who create the cloth for use in the local economy produce the fabric for sale globally. This activity contributes to difficulties in attributing authenticity, which inherently affects cultural value. Complicating matters more, when textiles are removed from the production space and assimilated into a new culture for general use or display in a museum, a portion of the story woven into the material is lost. This is largely due to the fact that the symbolism associated with the patterns and coloration are not always understood by the receiving culture. Many people around the world who are of African descent wear African textiles as a means of celebrating and connecting with their heritage. Does the proliferation of sales and use of African textiles outside of Africa affect the connotations associated with wealth and status in the producing culture?

Mossi man weaving, 1976 Mossi people, Burkina Faso Photograph by Christopher D. Roy Source:


Asante people, Ghana Women’s kente cloth wrap, 20th century Cotton and silk with dyes Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1982.101

The creation of kente cloth is extremely labor-intensive and requires great foresight in weaving color, pattern, and form. These strips are produced through an intricate weaving process that is learned by men of the Asante, or other Akan cultures, in a workshop setting. Completed cloths are constructed by sewing together many narrow strips of woven textile produced on small wooden looms. Starting with basic patterns, the men eventually learn the skills required to create more elaborate and demanding designs. Common kente cloths feature yellow, orange, green, red and black. However, black and white cloths are also popular. Written by Victoria Azzi

Grand Bassam, Côte d’Ivoire Relief textile dye stamps, 20th century Wood Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1982.146e,f,h

Carved wood motifs are often used to stamp repeating patterns, which are then processed through the wax-resist method commonly known as batik. The diverse array of patterns of the stamps can be purely decorative or possess symbolic meaning. Wax is heated to a liquid form that coats designated undyed areas of the cotton fabric. These coated areas resist dyes applied by the textile stamps, creating patterns consisting of negative and positive space. Multiple applications of the same or various stamps create overall patterns. Most cotton fabric used in the production of textiles was cultivated in Africa, but has been replaced by imported synthetic yarns in recent decades. Written by Victoria Azzi


Goldweights The name of these objects is potentially misleading because the weights are actually made of bronze or brass using the traditional “lost wax� casting process. They were primarily used among the Akan people for weighing gold dust, which was a form of currency before the use of coins and paper money, and other traded commodities. The weights provided merchants and traders with fair and equal weight to currency ratios. As for the aesthetic value of the goldweights, they are miniature representations of objects and activities such as agricultural tools for harvesting, weapons, stools, people, animals and other utilitarian items. Many feature geometric patterns in square, rectangular or diamond-shaped compositions, which pre-date the objectoriented bronze pieces. Others are based on stories that are told to promote moral and ethical behavior. Today, goldweights are collectible items among tourists. This has resulted in many mass-produced reproductions of earlier goldweights. How can a collector recognize the cultural value of an original goldweight compared to the newly produced examples that may not adhere to a traditional monetary unit?

Akan gold trading materials (weights, scale and spoon), early 20th century Akan people, Burkina Faso Photographer unknown Source: University of California, San Diego

Asante people, Ghana Scale with gold dust spoon, ca. 1928 Brass Gift of Ralph T. Johnson 1989.22.52-53

This scale was used to measure the amount of gold dust that an individual possessed. The weights used to determine the amount of gold was measured by the Islamic ounce and each weight used had a specific and universal measurement. Because the weights were standard in value, the measuring system allowed for fair trading in the markets. Common accessories used in measuring gold dust are spoons and an offset bead, all carried in small bags. Written by Mallory Hellenthal


Burkina Faso Goldweight (man harvesting maize), early 20th century Bronze Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1982.165b

Senufo people, Mali, Burkina Faso & Côte d’Ivoire Granary Door, mid-20th century Wood Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1984.92


Figures Specific cultures in which African figurative sculptures are created heavily influence the subject matter, usage and style. Symbolism and the story of the figures can vary depending on gender. Some sculptures have spiritual value and are seen as a method to protect the spirit of lost loved ones. Others are used to promote fertility, whether of marriage or agriculture. Object types, style, size, and other details are all conditioned by the societal expectations of the producing culture. The ornamentation and decoration of carvings may allude to their cultural importance and function. Figures that are adorned with beads, shells, feathers and other decorations are often considered more valuable, and frequently denote ownership by wealthier patrons. How does the use of manufactured glass or plastic beads—compared to man-made ornamentation— affect the intrinsic value of devotional wood figures? A Yoruba woman with a pair of Ibeji figures, 20th century Yoruba people, Nigeria & Benin Photographer unknown Source:

Bamileke, Cameroon Seated female figure, ca. 1920 Wood, mud, sack cloth, glass beads and cowrie shells Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1976.SC.16.7

This figure decorated with both beads and cowrie shells illustrates an object of great importance that was once owned by a person of high social status, possibly a queen. Either a portrait or a female ancestor, this figure would have been deemed highly prized in terms of monetary value, but more importantly as a cultural object denoting the ruling family. A valuable figure of this nature would have been displayed prominently during prestigious ceremonies proclaiming the power of the fon, or group leader. Written by Jacquie Wallace


Yoruba people, Nigeria and Benin Pair of female Ibeji figures, 20th century Wood with glass beads Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1981.7.45a,b

Twins are very common among the Yoruba people, as is infant mortality. Ibeji sculptures are commissioned specifically by the family of the deceased twin or twins, and are used as both a memorial and an implement of ritual. Families bathe, clothe and care for their Ibeji as if it is their living child, as they believe it is a resting place for the deceased twin’s soul. If cared for, twins can bring wealth and prosperity to a family, but if neglected they can bring misfortune. Written by Jacquie Wallace

Personal Adornment After falling out of favor as currency in the mid-19th century, cowrie shells came to denote wealth as the most prized decorative material used in the production of jewelry, hats, belts and other forms of personal adornment. This same value of status is applied to beading. However, beaded objects were initially made exclusively for people who could commune with the gods. Kings and some priests possessed beaded items that ranged from clothing and accessories to stools and staffs. Bronze and silver are also valuable materials reserved primarily for royalty and are commonly used in the production of bracelets, rings and necklaces. Like many other African materials, similar objects are being produced by skilled African artisans and are sold in marketplaces. These newly created objects are now being passed off as historic in nature, worn by kings, queens or religious figures. Do these modern creations help educate purchasers about the form, function and specific decorations related to the parent cultures?

Maasai woman wearing a wedding necklace, 2010 Maasai people, Kenya and Tanzania Photograph by Lynn Ouellete Source:


Yoruba people, Nigeria and Benin King’s crown (adenla), ca. 1930 Beads, fabric, bamboo and leather Gift from Miami University Art Museum Shop 1994.68

In the Yoruba culture, only an oba (king) can wear a crown that is covered from top to bottom in beading. Beaded fringes draped around the face of the oba are not simply aesthetic accoutrements. The beaded veil protects the king’s power, wealth and prosperity. At the peak of the crown is a bird that symbolizes Odùduwà, the first Yoruba king. Like many cultures, animals represent an intermediary connection between the ruler and the orisha, or deities. Written by Mallory Hellenthal

Household Material Culture Often compared with, and frequently overshadowed by, the more unique and colorful figurative sculptures, objects for domestic use may appear mundane and inconsequential. On the contrary, Akan women with a prestige comb, early 20th century these objects give Akan people, Burkina Faso Photographer unknown important insights Source: into African ideals and cultural practices. The creative integration of utility and artistry is quite important as these objects do not require aesthetic detail in order to be functional. Makers of household items have a task not seen in the creation of purely artistic objects: they follow a traditional template while adding personal flair. In this way, a maker of domestic goods is both a follower and founder of tradition. While figurative art is normally considered more public than personal household items, frequent use of such items bestows its own kind of recognition on them. They are constantly in view, unlike some shrine figures, which gives reason for the profuse decoration. The adornment of household items also grants the owner pleasure which heightens the viewing and practical experience. What would be the cultural value of a utilitarian item, such as a comb or jewelry box, if it were created, sold and used by a person from a different country, continent or ethnicity?


Kuba Kingdom, Democratic Republic of Congo Royal cosmetic box, 20th century Wood, coin and brass Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 2010.2.54

Wealthy women who were also of higher social status owned ornate tukula boxes, rather than the less expensive gourd or shell, for storing cosmetic pigments. Kuba sculptors made boxes of various shapes to contain tukula, a reddish powder made from camwood trees. The powder was mixed with oil to create pigments used on cloth or skin for ceremonial decoration. Low-relief carvings of geometric or facial designs on the covers symbolized cultural motifs and ancestral stories. Written by Rebecca Cassidy

Somalia Headrest, ca. 1920 Wood Gift of Walter I. Farmer 1976.W.6.11

Carved wood headrests are considered African pillows. Since many hours are spent on creating intricate hairstyles, these headrests protect the hair and keep it intact during the owner’s slumber. They are often carved from one piece of wood, with different styles conveying the different statuses of the owners. Out of doors, the headrests are practical in keeping one’s head off the ground and safe from insects and other creatures that may make their way into hair, even ears. Written by Rebecca Cassidy


Baskets A common item found in nearly all African cultures is the basket. These woven items serve several purposes within different societies. Certain styles, colors and weaving techniques can indicate the specific culture or people that created these objects. Their purposes range from the utilitarian to the decorative and their usages from storing everyday items to processing produce. The different shapes and embellishment of baskets often denotes the functionality of the object. Typically a lidded basket is used for storage or transportation, while open baskets are for serving or food preparation. Some basket interiors are coated with pitch, a plant-derived resin, to render them leak-proof for storing or serving liquids such as water or beer. Ornamentation through the use of natural pigments, beading and the application of shells or other materials elevate these utilitarian objects to another level where aesthetics are highly valued. Is an undecorated basket any less culturally valuable than a basket that is adorned with cowrie shells and colored fibers? Can the viewer learn just as much about the maker or parent culture from the study of the lesser ornamented basket?

Mossi basket maker, 1976 La Titon, Burkina Faso Photograph by Christopher D. Roy Source:

Ethiopia Basket, ca. 1970 Wood, leather, cowrie shells and pigment Gift of Walter I. Farmer 1976.B.6.7

Ethiopian coiled baskets woven by women display a high degree of workmanship. Sometimes one square inch will contain 18 stitches and 10 color changes. The starting coils in the center of the basket are so fine that as many as nine rows in an inch can be counted. The imbrication, or overlapping, technique used in these baskets allows for the creation of embroidery-like patterns. An extra piece of grass is often placed over the stitching to create diverse designs. The use of cowrie shells on the leather-strap handles indicates a basket created for an owner of higher social status. Written by Rebecca Cassidy & Mallory Hellenthal


Ethiopia Chow basket (agelgel), 1930 Natural fiber with goatskin and leather Gift of Walter I. Farmer 1976.B.6.12

Agelgel food baskets such as this lidded woven and goatskin bound example are popular among the Orona people of Ethiopia. These baskets are made by women and are used to carry food, such as injeri bread. Agelgel are most commonly associated with lunch meals. The leather straps that intertwine at the peak of the lid and the wooden elements that tightly fit into loops along the sides secure the contents. The agelgel basket can be looped over the shoulder or around the waist with the largest of the leather straps. Written by Jason E. Shaiman

Art Museum Staff: Robert S. Wicks, Ph.D. Director

Jason E. Shaiman Curator of Exhibitions

Cynthia Collins

Curator of Education

Mark DeGennaro Preparator/Operations Manager

Sherri Krazl Coordinator of Marketing and Communications

Laura Stewart Collections Manager/ Registrar

Sue Gambrell Program Coordinator

Debbie Caudill Program Assistant

Museum Gallery Hours: Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday 12-5 p.m. Sunday-Monday CLOSED The art museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.




Construction of the Miami University Art Museum in 1978 was made possible by private contributions to Miami University’s Goals for Enrichment capital campaign in the mid-1970s. A major gift for the building came as a bequest from Miami alumnus Fred C. Yager, class of 1914. Walter A. Netsch, the museum’s architect, Walter I. Farmer, class of 1935, and Orpha B. Webster generously donated extensive art collections and were all instrumental in developing early support for the museum.


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Above: Senufo people, Mali, Burkina Faso & Côte d’Ivoire Game board in form of crocodile, 20th century Wood and seedpods Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1991.516 Cover: Yoruba people, Nigeria and Benin Mounted warrior altarpiece, 20th century Wood Gift of Ralph (’65) and Barbara Drake (’68) Bresler 1976.SC.16.22

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