Telling Objects: African Art from the Permanent Collection

Telling Objects cover  ©LCVA

Curator Comments

    "The greater the knowledge, the greater the enjoyment."
    -- African art scholar Frank Willett, African Art, 1993

The past year was spent studying, researching, and writing about the works of African art in the permanent collection of the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts. As I gained information about and understanding of the works, Dr. Willett's words proved to be true. Africa, after all, is a huge continent comprising several regions and many countries, within which are hundreds of cultures. Each culture has its own unique identity animated by its environment, values, and history. The 113 works of African art in LCVA's permanent collection represent most regions and a significant number of cultures. In dealing with such a diverse collection I first resolved to answer a single question: What do these objects tell us? This question formed the basis of my investigation and consequently led me to ponder other lines of inquiry, such as: How do these objects "speak" to us? What are the clues to their meanings? What are the central themes of the stories told by the objects?

In considering the thirty-five objects in this exhibition, the question of quality arises. How can quality in tribal African art be judged? By usual museum standards, quality includes a set of parameters both objective and subjective. Authenticity is always important. In African art, the work should have been used by the people who created it and not merely made for sale or decoration. Thus, objects that seem aged and worn are often the most prized. Second, quality connotes craftsmanship and intentionality. That is, do the features of a mask evoke the intended response of terror or joy, awe or reverence? Does the work reflect the culture's notions of beauty? Western eyes may not necessarily see beauty in filed teeth and scarification, but the Baule people do. Selecting works of the highest quality is based on my experience of studying many examples of a type of work, comparing these examples, and assigning a relative aesthetic value to each.

The pieces in this exhibition represent four geographic areas (West, Central, East, and the Savanna), twelve countries (Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania) and twenty-seven cultures (Akan, Babanki, Baga, Bamana, Baule, Boki, Bwa, Chokwe, Dogon, Guro, Ibibio, Igbo, Kirdi, Kongo, Kuba, Lokele, Mende, Mokondé, Mongo, Nupe, Punu, Songye, Suku, Teke, Turumbu, Yaka, Yoruba). Given the diversity of the works' origins, it is important to note how the objects are labeled. The labels assigned to most Western art works in museums usually identify a specific artist (name, birth and death dates, country of origin), title and date of the work, type of medium, and dimensions of the piece. Such distinctions often cannot apply to tribal African art.

By tradition African artists do not sign and date their work, and consequently, the artist's name is rarely known. It is often extremely difficult to accurately date these works because styles and materials changed little over long periods of time. Most works were made for use and not for sale. Often, identification is based on materials used, field photographs, style and symbols depicted. However, although African art creations are based on age-old traditions, freedom for artistic license and individuality still exists.

In this exhibition and catalogue, works are identified in the following manner:
Object Type (Linguistic Identification)
Culture (Association)
Country of Origin

Object Type
refers to characteristic of form (i.e., mask, figure, stool, etc.). Masks are further identified by how they were worn -- whether face, forehead, helmet (covering the entire head), crest (attached by way of cap or basket), headdress (tied onto the top of the head), or plank (a face mask with a flat form projecting high in the air). Linguistic Identification further defines the object type in the particular language of origin, especially if the object represents a specific character or refers to a certain event.

defines the particular group of people among whom the object was created. This attribution can be narrowed through Association, a defined group of people within the culture. The term 'association' is analogous to the identification of an American art work as being made, for example, by the Boy Scouts or the Lions Club.

Country of Origin
denotes the place where the object was made and used.

refers to the materials used in the fabrication of the object (wood, shells, raffia, paint).

are given as height preceding width preceding depth, and measurements are in inches.

Each object in this exhibition conveys a story. Each color, pattern, shape, material, and format provides a clue to telling that particular story. Instead of being organized according to geography, the exhibition is configured thematically.Initiation, Abundance, Social Order, Supernatural Aid, Death, and Giving Thanks constitute the six basic themes.

These themes are not unique to Africa but are found in every culture around the world, including our own. My intent in interpreting each work is to convey its complex nature, to enhance appreciation, and to provide familiar cultural parallels in Western life. The viewer's ability to put himself into the narratives should increase his enjoyment, pleasure, awe or fright. Some objects have multiple purposes within a culture. The particular story ascribed to an individual piece may not be the whole story. The text on labels associated with each work provides additional information.

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Introduction by Longwood University President, Dr. Patricia Cormier

Inspiration sparked in the classroom can lead to a lifelong journey of wonder, joy and personal fulfillment. Telling Objects: African Art from the Permanent Collection began in a classroom when Donna and Thomas L. Brumfield, Jr. enrolled in a drawing class taught by John Morgan at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. One student assignment was to study certain objects in the museum's African art collection. There, the Brumfields' passion for African art was first ignited. During the next 16 years their enthusiasm for and enjoyment of African art grew as their knowledge expanded through on-going study and visits to museums and galleries across the country. The Brumfields' informed connoisseurship is the result of their keen eyes, love of the art, appreciation of craftsmanship and enduring vision.

In 1999, the Brumfields made an extraordinary gift to Longwood University-88 superb works of African art. The Brumfields' lives and generosity epitomize the values Longwood University espouses. At Longwood, education is not solely a means by which to earn a living, it is a means by which to live a life of learning, beauty, and hope. This clearly applies to the magnitude and significance of the Brumfields' gift. In every society, the arts are key to a quality of life that is richly textured and desirable. Longwood provides an educational ground, a template, that encourages students to be more fully aware of the world around them. Telling Objects: African Art from the Permanent Collection highlights 35 works from the Brumfields' gift that make this belief more than merely words on paper.

As president of Longwood University, I am proud that the Brumfields chose Longwood to be the beneficiary of their passion. On behalf of the Longwood University Board of Visitors, alumni, students, faculty, staff, as well as the people of Southside Virginia, I extend heartfelt gratitude. The educational and inspirational power found in this collection surely will benefit generations to come.

Dr. Patricia Cormier, President
Longwood University

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The exhibition, Telling Objects: African Art from the Permanent Collection, and its accompanying catalogue are made possible through the efforts of many generous individuals. First, the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts (LCVA) is profoundly grateful for the beneficence of Donna and Thomas L. Brumfield, Jr. The thirty-five objects in this exhibition were selected from the eighty-eight works of African art donated to the Center by the Brumfields. Without their gifts of art, expertise and financial support, as well as their immense enthusiasm for the project, Telling Objects would not be possible. LCVA is also grateful to the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C., for its substantial grant to support the services of a temporary collections manager and a photographer.

LCVA is indebted to the following scholars who graciously provided their expertise: Bryna Freyer, Assistant Curator, and Janice Stanley, Librarian, of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Richard Woodward, Curator of African Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; Judith Perani, Professor of Art History, Ohio University, Athens; Rebecca Stevens, Curator, The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.; Suzanne Foley, Curator, University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville; and Alisa LaGamma, Assistant Curator and Emma Ross, research Assistant, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

This project also required the unwavering hard work of the staff of LCVA. Erika Evans, Museum Registrar, and Michelle McMillian, Collections Manager, catalogued the art works and provided oversight for photographic documentation. Anne Coffey, Administrative Assistant, thoroughly checked details of the written materials and ensured that the staff had the required supplies. Bob Alden, LCVA Preparator, transformed the original vision of the exhibition into a concrete reality through his woodworking and presentation skills. Educator Denise Penick enthusiastically garnered the support of public school administrators and teachers to create interesting and informative exhibition support materials for use in area schools. Two Longwood University students were helpful: Beth Hadrys, communications studies intern, handled LCVA's Web site, and art major Megan Reed created drawings of works in the exhibition to be used in educational materials and for research. In addition, the project would not have been possible without the commitment of LCVA volunteers and members. Volunteers Paul Bowles and Robin Sedgwick furnished proofreading and editing expertise, as did William and Ann Oppenhimer. Sandy Willcox provided additional help in exhibition preparation.

Finally, without the skills of photographer Taylor Dabney and Longwood University Director of Publications and Visual Arts, David Whaley, the visible evidence of all this time and talent would not be so beautifully preserved.

Thank you all.

K. Johnson Bowles, Director
Longwood Center for the Visual Arts

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