The Snite Museum of Art reinstalls the Christensen family's collection of African art
By C. SPENCER BEGGS
Sometimes the best way to look at a culture is to see the way in which they look at themselves. "Mask and Figures, Form and Style: The Christensen Family Collects African Art," a reinstallation of a portion of the Snite Museum of Art's African art collection, gives patrons a glimpse of how traditional African cultures understood their world; a world so different from, but at the same time relevant to, our own.
The Christensen family collection of African art consists of 26 piece that they have acquired over the last 30 years. The exhibition represents about a quarter of their current holdings. The family was struck by the sculptural quality of African Art and contacted art dealers in Chicago and New York that were able to help the family acquire a high quality collection of West African art.
"Mask and Figures, Form and Style: The Christensen Family Collects African Art" represents some of the collection's strengths. Most of the pieces are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and many are artistically important to a form of expression that is disappearing and in some cases lost in the modern world.
Masks and figures serve a utilitarian function in their respective African cultures.
"Most masks are used for social control; they are objects which are worn by humans but … motivated by spirits of the bush that are called upon to help human restore social order," said Douglas Bradley, curator of the Arts of the America, Africa and Oceania at the Snite Museum of Art.
For example, one of the pieces, an Egungun mask, was traditionally used to punish witches. Other masks are used to iconize cultural heroes and to breed reverence.
Figures, on the other hand, often are used to supplicate, invoke or communicate with spirits, gods or ancestors. One of the statues from the Songye people in the exhibit is used to prevent smallpox.
"We are all trapped in our post-modern, early 21st century worldview … but it's very important to see that in the last 150 years people from all over the world, in this case Africa, are trained to solve the same problems that we deal with every day," Bradley said.
"While we may not feel that it is as efficacious as they obviously thought it is, we might as well go take a look … It's a wide world out there and we ought to expand our horizons."
The pieces often use symbolism to express meaning. Figures may use exaggerated features to idealize certain virtues, although these may represent either the virtues of an individual or an icon.
The pieces in the exhibit draw primarily from two of Africa's ecological zones, the Sudanic grasslands and the Guinea coast. Both areas are known for their beautiful traditional artwork.
"Whether you look at [these pieces] with a Songye ascetic view or a 21st century Notre Dame student ascetic view, they will smack you right between the eyes. It is important to look though the eyes of other peoples; it's the whole reason students are here at the University," Bradley said.
The exhibit is especially relevant to Notre Dame not only because the Christensen family are local art collectors but because it serves as a follow up to another exhibition of African art the Snite Museum of Art presented in 1998, the Beatrice Riese Collection. The Riese Collection is known as a very important African Art collection and Bradley feels that the Christensen collection expands on the museum's exploration of the art genre.
"We have always thought that the exhibition and display of African art is an important part of our mission [as a museum]," Bradley said.
In addition to the Christensen family collection, the Snite Museum of Art will be exhibiting a number of recent acquisitions from the Fon group in the People's Republic of Benin, Haitian and Voodoo sculptures as well as two pieces borrowed from private collections.
"Mask and Figures, Form and Style: The Christensen Family Collects African Art" will be on display at the Snite Museum of Art in the Mestrovic Studio Gallery from Jan. 13 to Mar. 10. An opening reception for the exhibition is scheduled for Sunday at 2:30 p.m. The reception will feature a libation ceremony performed by Chandra Johnson, assistant director of Cross Cultural Ministry.
Vernell Ball-Daniel, High/Scope Mentor Coordinator at Indiana University South Bend, will tell the stories of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad on Feb. 19 at 8 p.m. in the Annenberg Auditorium. And the Snite Museum of Art will, in conjunction with the Black Cultural Art Association, offer a Special Evening for Notre Dame students to view the exhibition on Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. entitled "From Africa to America: a Cultural Sojourn of Masks and Memories."
The Snite Museum of Art is open daily to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday and is closed on Monday and all major holidays. Admission is free. For information call (219) 631-5466.
In the end, the exhibition is about understanding and inspiration. Bradley hopes that the collection will help Notre Dame students understand the world in which they live.
"These are works of art that are beautiful by the definitions of societies that may not exist or exist in vastly altered forms today. These are their traditions; their ancient ways of looking at the world. Every time that you can see something that you've never seen before, know nothing about, you should take time to … you may find something that surprises and humbles you," Bradley said.
Contact C. Spencer Beggs at email@example.com.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, January 17, 2002