Tradition and Transition: African Art from the Brooklyn
Museum of Art
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This installation at the Williams College Museum of Art celebrates a unique collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In their original context, most of the objects in Tradition and Transition were created for use in religious or political ceremonies. Masks link the living with spirits from the beyond; wooden effigies and zoomorphic masks were made to honor the dead, summon spirits to protect communities, or as instruments of social control and symbols of male power.
The nine objects on loan from Brooklyn were used in their societies of origin generally as reflections of privilege, authority, and reverence for the dead. The zoomorphic masks of a water buffalo and an elephant and the stylized figure of a bird symbolize royalty and chieftancy, as well as male dominance and the power of nature. A Mende mask is associated with ceremonies that were held exclusively by and for women. A lost-wax bronze pendant mask from the royal court of Benin was once part of the regalia of an Edo chief. The rhythm pounder (deble) from the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast was once a crucial prop in both commemorative ancestral rites and in initiations of adolescents to adult society; it was also a benevolent symbol of fertility and a conduit to the departed. A wooden Dogon figure from Mali facilitated communication between earth and heaven and was once used to propitiate the gods of rain. A reliquary from Gabon is typical of objects associated with ancestors; such objects were used as guardians, applied to baskets holding the remains of the honored departed, and were also conduits for communicating with the beyond.
Among the works highlighted from the WCMA's collection are a tall, imposing Nafana mask from Ghana, entirely covered by painted black-and-white triangular designs, a mask from Yoruba displaying the prominent striped ears, broad flat-banded collar, and scarified face typical of the Apasa form; and a horned helmet mask from the Igbo people in Nigeria believed to embody the spiritual powers and potent male forces necessary to rid a community of harmful spirits.
The MLN travel and implementation grants awarded to WCMA has enabled it to focus more on its own African holdings and to enhance its ability to fulfill its educational mission. Included in the MLN award to WCMA are provisions for special events and programs for families and adults beginning in the Fall of 1998, and an educational brochure.