The College of Wooster art museum is currently home to over 100 newly acquired pieces of African art.
The art ranges from game boards and jewelry to ceremonial masks, pipes and stone carvings.
Donated by Milliam C. Mithoefer, a 1953 graduate of the college, the collection represents 11 African nations and 49 ethnic groups.
African art has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. When I entered the gallery and was surrounded by it, I got a sense of why it has recently become so popular and held in such high regard amongst the artistic community at large.
The pieces are not crudely carved chunks of wood, as I once imagined, but masterfully crafted objects of art.
To help viewers better understand the pieces”‘ use and importance, each piece of artwork is accompanied by a placecard explaining who made it, where it came from, and what its original purpose was.
I was fascinated by the range of objects and their uses, including a rice spoon from the Dan peoples of Liberia, a doll from the Asante peoples of Ghana and a ceremonial female mask from the Ibibio peoples of Nigeria.
The most remarkable pieces on display are the masks.
They make up about half of the collection, varying greatly in style and purpose from one ethnic group to another.
I found them beautiful, but at the same time I felt that having something intended for performance should not be hanging on a gallery wall.
As fascinating as they are, reading the text makes it clear that the mask is only a part of the ceremony it is used in.
I felt like Alice, looking into a world I could never really understand.
From an outsider”‘s perspective, I found the two masks from the Sande society to be the most compelling.
Sande is a female society that brings girls into womanhood, and the mask is worn by leaders as an important part of the initiation ceremony.
The carved wooden helmet mask refers to the supernatural being that represents the society as well as the dancer who wears it.
Looking at them up close, I was in awe; it wasn”‘t necessary to read the label to know it represented so much power.
In this art, I saw icons of the type of beauty that we as Americans are not entirely used to seeing.
We all know the American ideal, and it is all to do with what we look like on the surface, but the Sande masks represent physical beauty as well as the virtues, spirituality and power of the women who wear them.
Wooster”‘s collection of African art is particularly immense compared to that of most schools, and a huge portion of it is on display in Ebert until Sunday, Oct. 5.
To kick off the exhibit, the museum will host a conversation in the gallery on Wednesday, Sept. 17 between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. with director and curator Kitty McManus Zurko.
This art is wildly diverse, with practical, decorative and spiritual uses, from many different materials, time periods, nations and societies that most of us would never be able to experience firsthand.
The exhibit provides an opportunity not only to see beautiful art, but to learn about cultures and practices that are completely foreign to our everyday society.