Tag Archives: African Art

This image is owned by The Baltimore Museum of Art; permission to reproduce this work of art must be granted in writing. Third party copyright may also be involved. Image by Mitro Hood.

WATCH: Njideka Akunyili Crosby discusses new exhibition at The Baltimore Museum of Art

Artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby invited art enthusiasts inside her creative process the same day her new exhibition, Front Room: Njideka Akunyili Crosby | Counterparts, opened at The Baltimore Museum of Art.

On the heels of being named a 2017 MacArthur Award winner, Crosby sat down with BMA Senior Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman at The Maryland Institute College of Art to discuss culture, technique, and the beauty of breaking the rules.

WATCH BELOW:

Front Room: Njideka Akunyili Crosby | Counterparts is on view through March 18, 2018. 

Grappling with Challenging Topics in Art Museums: Sande Society masks at the BMA

Installation view. (L-R) Artist Unidentified. Sande Society Helmet Mask (Ndoli Jowei). 1930-1940, Sherbro Region, Sierra Leone, 1984.251 Artist Unidentified. Sande Society Helmet Mask (Ndoli Jowei). Early 20th century, Mende Region, Sierra Leone 1987.149 Artist Unidentified. Sande Society Helmet Mask. Early 20th century, Sherbro Region, Bonce Island, Sierra Leone 1989.389 Nguabu Master, Sierra Leonian, birth and death unknown . Sande Society Helmet Mask. 1920’s-1940’s. Mende Region, Sierra Leone, 1984.50 Nguabu Master, Sierra Leonian, birth and death unknown. Sande Society Helmet Mask. 1920’s-1940’s. Mende Region, Sierra Leone, 1991.127.

Sande Society helmet masks on view in the BMA’s newly reopened African Art galleries.

Earlier this week, the Baltimore Sun published an editorial on an important and controversial issue—female circumcision (sometimes referred to as female genital mutilation)—and its relationship to a group of Sande Society helmet masks on view in the BMA’s new African art galleries. The masks are worn by senior Sande Society women in Liberia and Sierra Leone during initiation ceremonies for young girls that mark their transition into adulthood.

Like most museum objects, the helmet masks tell multiple and complex stories. For example, their refined carving and harmonious design demonstrate the incredible variety, innovation, and artistic excellence of their makers. Displayed together––as they are in the BMA––the masks counter the prevalent notion of African art as static and uniform.

A second story highlights concepts of idealized female beauty within the Sande Society and the individuality of the masks’ patrons. The broad forehead represents character and wisdom while the sensuously ringed neck signifies fertility and good health. Narrow eyes show focus and introspection and suggest demure behavior, while sealed lips indicate an ability to keep secrets. The smooth, glossy black surface not only evokes good health and grooming but also refers to the dark forest streams in which spirits reside. The elaborate coiffure serves as a personal statement of style and a reflection of social prestige. While all Sande Society masks carry these standard features, each is highly individualized according to its patron’s taste. One mask wears glasses and earrings while others are adorned with birds, cooking pots, cowrie shells and other symbolic motifs that refer to Sande traditions, proverbs, or teachings. In Africa where masks are typically a male tradition, the helmet masks speak to the power and artistic influence of women in the Sande Society.

Yet another narrative addresses the social and cultural context of the masks. Masks like these are performed at masquerades during significant civic events in society including funerals, honoring important visitors, and the initiation of young women into adulthood. A centuries-old tradition, during the initiation process senior members instruct young initiates in their roles as women: proper sexual behavior, childbearing, and child rearing. Some initiations also include the removal of some or all of the external female genitalia, an operation that is seen by some as a sacred rite of passage and by many others as a human rights violation. Some societies have stopped this practice of their own accord or because the country has made it illegal, in some cases to help stem the spread of the ebola virus.

Female circumcision has been a topic of international discussion. Just this week, Nigerian President Goodluck Johnson signed a bill that criminalizes female genital mutilation or cutting. According to the World Health Organization, more than 125 million girls have experienced female circumcision, to varying degrees, in the 29 countries where this procedure is concentrated. The practice is also on the rise in the U.S., where according to Newsweek, more than half a million woman are at risk of undergoing the procedure or have already experienced it.

How do we as viewers hold these stories—stories of beauty and creativity, culture and tradition, individuality and self-efficacy, pain and suffering—simultaneously? And what is the museum’s role in negotiating and presenting multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings? How do we tell balanced stories that address both the artistic context and potential contentious human experiences that these objects touch? How do we share controversial information without feeding into negative stereotypes or narrow frameworks often associated with African cultures? These are some of the questions BMA staff are grappling with as we strive to be a responsible, reflexive, and relevant museum.

Works of art embody multiple, complex, and sometimes difficult narratives that span the spectrum of human experience. They speak of beauty and joy, pain and sorrow, love and loss—often at the same time. As stewards of cultural heritage, museums are uniquely positioned to provide a space for inquiry, reflection, and dialogue on important historical and contemporary issues.

Much thought, research, and consultation with experts went into the presentation and interpretation of the Sande Society helmet masks. Our discussions have included how to provide information about the masks that highlights their artistic value and how to provide broader insights about the culture from which they came that extends beyond this one practice. We have also discussed the best format to use in presenting the information. Museums have a variety of tools at their disposal, from printed wall texts, workshops, and lectures to newer technologies and social media.

With every exhibition our goal is to provide accurate, complete, and accessible information on works of art and the ideas that surround them, and at the same time honor the interpretations and narratives that our visitors bring to their experiences with objects. We are taking a closer look at how we present information about the Sande Society masks and other challenging issues in art throughout the museum in order to create the best possible experience for all our visitors. As we work toward finding new and better ways of communicating difficult information, we welcome your response to the questions below.

  • What role should art museums play in presenting difficult historical and contemporary issues?
  • How can we address the different stories that objects can tell us?

We appreciate your interest in the BMA and hope to see you in the galleries.

 

Jay Fisher, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs
Anne Manning, Deputy Director for Education and Interpretation

Interview with traditional Yoruba carver Lukman Alade Fakeye

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Photo of Lukman Alade Fakeye in front of doors carved by his uncle Lamide Olonade Fakeye. Courtesy of Lukman Alade Fakeye.

Born into a famous family of West African master carvers, Lukman Alade Fakeye continues the legacy, creating traditional Yoruba wood carvings. His great grandfather’s Epa Society Mask is on view in the new presentation of the BMA’s African Art collection—one of the most important African collections in the United States.

Lukman recently spoke with museum educator Jessica Braiterman about growing up in his father’s studio and the Epa Ceremonial Mask that represents women’s reproductive and spiritual powers during Epa festivals.

JB: How would have the BMA’s Epa Society Mask by your great-grandfather been used?

LAF: It was a ceremonial mask worn during my great grandfather’s life time. When the time for the Epa festival arrives, the mask would be worn by one of the priests to dance and bless people with prayers. The carving of the mother depicted on the mask was used to acknowledge the important role of women in our community and to pay homage to our ancestors. The mask is always kept in a shrine when not in use for the festival and elders bring offerings for the mask and say prayers.

JB: Tell me about your training as a wood carver? When did you begin to learn wood carving and who taught you?

LAF: I spent my childhood playing with my late father, Akin Fakeye, in his workshop and at the same time studying him and my brothers, Sulaiman and Akeem, who were also working in the studio. As a young kid I didn’t realize that this was part of learning process for me. The more I stayed and played in the studio, the more I absorbed. It was like storing information in a computer memory. I used to play in the studio with abandoned tools and wood with some childhood friends and my father used to tell us stories about his grandfather and his father and other great carvers. All the stories he used to tell us inspired me to learn the family tradition.

Photo of Lukman's father Akin Fakeye. Courtesy of Lukman Alade Fakeye.

Photo of Lukman’s father Akin Fakeye. Courtesy of Lukman Alade Fakeye.

By the time I was 9-12 years old, I would head to the studio around 6 a.m. to sweep and clean the studio before going to school. After school, I would return to the studio to eat and study my father while carving. That was my daily routine as a young boy and I was determined to learn the family tradition. Over time, my father taught me how to use different kinds of carving tools and many other things about traditional Yoruba wood carving.

Photo of Lukman working in his studio. Courtesy of Lukman Alade Fakeye.

Photo of Lukman working in his studio. Courtesy of Lukman Alade Fakeye.

JB: What were some of the hardest things to learn?

LAF: As a beginner every aspect of learning is always hard. During this stage, everything is made by hand, we don’t use machine tools. For me [personally], the hardest thing to learn was to make the base balance on the floor.

JB: What’s it like being part of a prestigious wood carving family? Was there lots of pressure to carry on the family tradition?

LAF: I am very proud to be born into the Fakeye family and be one of the carvers of the Fakeye dynasty. I think there is some pressure to carry on the family tradition, because my brother and I need to take it to the next level and maintain the family legacy and tradition to the fullest.

JB: What piece are you most proud of?

I am very proud of every Fakeye carving, especially my father’s and my uncle Lamidi Fakeye’s work because they are all beautiful masterpieces. A few of my favorites are the 13’ statue of Oduduwa at Obafemi Awolowo University at Ile Ife, Nigeria and the carved doors by my father at the Catholic mission house in Ibadan, Nigeria. As for my work, I am most proud of the 7’ long carved dining table with 6 chairs.

Photo of Lukman's recent hand-carved dining room table and chairs. Courtesy of Lukman Alade Fakeye.

Photo of Lukman’s recent hand-carved dining room table and chairs. Courtesy of Lukman Alade Fakeye.

 

JB: What are your future aspirations?

LAF: To continue the family legacy and take it to the next level. I want to be able to teach youth and adults around the world about traditional Yoruba wood carving techniques and the Fakeye family history.

I would love to have a Fakeye Museum of Yoruba Art and an institute to teach Yoruba art and the Fakeye dynasty so that the family tradition continues.

The expanded and renovated African galleries debut on Sunday, April 26 during a free day-long celebration, with musical performances, art-making, gallery conversations that highlight the diversity of contemporary and traditional African art, and more. 

BMA Voices: Puppets

Artist Unidentified. Bamana or Bozo region (Mali). Female Puppet. Mid‑20th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Barry and Toby T. Hecht, Bethesda, Maryland, BMA 1988.1411

Artist Unidentified. Bamana or Bozo region (Mali). Female Puppet. Mid‑20th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Barry and Toby T. Hecht, Bethesda, Maryland, BMA 1988.1411

Aden Weisel, Curatorial Assistant of Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia & the Pacific Islands, investigates some brightly colored puppets within the BMA collection, and links the puppetry traditions of Mali and Baltimore.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.