Goodreau and Ohop provide a glimpse into African cultures

Donald Halsing / THE GATEPOST

Students and faculty alike took a journey to the east side of campus, April 23, entering through the sliding doors of the Whittemore Library, where they were immersed in the 20th-century material culture of Africa.

Juniors Libby Goodreau and Aemilia Ohop curated the student-organized exhibition, “An Exploration of African Art,” spending months ahead of time identifying the 20 artifacts in the display, researching the functions and spiritual meanings behind each piece, writing professional artifact labels, and creating the graphic designs/illustrations.

According to Goodreau, the art department received a donation of 20 artifacts last semester from collector Thomas Carroll. The artifacts donated include masks, a mother and child statue, reliquary figures, a ceremonial knife, headrests, and heddle pulleys.

Goodreau said once she heard about the department receiving the artifacts, she thought it would be an interesting project to research and create an exhibition centered around them in order to earn credit in her independent study with Yumi Park Huntington, a professor of art history.

When the department first acquired the artifacts, Goodreau said she and Ohop brushed up on African history through introductory African art books provided by Park Huntington. They used these books to identify the artifacts, determining the region, time period, and materials used, before furthering their research on the uses and spiritual functionalities.

While reading the books, Ohop said she easily spent three hours a night learning about different African artifacts. “TIme just flies because you forget that you’re actually doing work. It’s like a little scavenger hunt,” she said.

Some of the artifacts weren’t in the books. Ohop and Goodreau said they had to look at the color and physical characteristics, such as a pointed chin or flat face on a mask, and compare it to other artifacts in the book in order to identify its origins.

Ohop said after they identified the artifacts, they had to check their findings with Park Huntington – and she either confirmed their conjectures or dropped hints to help them advance their research.

For example, Ohop said when examining the two Beete masks, she and Goodreau realized the masks both consist of horns, a triangular nose, crescent-shaped eyes, a small curved mouth, and white “kaolin pigments.” These similar characteristics led them to conclude that both masks were from the same African cultural group – the Kwele people of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Both masks were worn for ceremonies as part of initiation, solidarity, or mourning purposes, and during services to lead people in dance, wrote Goodreau in her artifact label.

All artifact labels were written by Goodreau, while Ohop focused on graphic design and illustration.

The other masks in the exhibit included a dance mask from the Shira-Punu Vili people of Gabon, a Mukudj mask used by the Punu people of Gabon, and a mask from the Lega people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Shira-Punu Vili people dance mask features “butterfly-shaped eyebrows, curved hairlines, and pursed lips” and was used during ceremonies.

The Mukudj mask has white “kaolin pigment” to represent the spirits of the dead and was used during funerals in a performance called mukudj, in which male dancers stood on stilts performing acrobatics in order to prove their “capabilities to possess mystical powers.”

The wooden Lega people’s mask has a long nose, an elongated teardrop-shaped face, and straight eye slits and mouth. The mask reminded viewers of Lega values and was used during ceremonies to initiate new members or celebrate members who reached higher levels of teachings.

The heddle pulleys in the exhibition were from the Guro and Senufo people of the Ivory Coast and were made of wood and metal. According to Goodreau, they were used as a “narrow-striped loom” to separate threads during weaving.

Next to the heddle pulleys were headrests from the Kambata people from Ethiopia. The headrests had three supporting columns and a curved top, designed to support the head and protect intricate hairstyles during sleep. The hairstyles symbolize an individual’s social status and identity within the community, wrote Goodreau.

Ohop’s favorite artifacts, the reliquary figures from the Mbulu Ngulu, Kota people from Gabon, were made using a wooden understructure, a brass sheet covering the wood, and a copper wire, which formed the faces. Goodreau said the figures hung on baskets that carried the bones of their ancestors to protect their spiritual powers and were often placed in homes where members of the community could pray for protection.

The mother and child statue in the exhibition was part of the culture of the Yoruba people from Nigeria. Goodreau said the statue, made of wood and blue pigment, was a symbol of fertility and often placed in shrines so the people could ask their ancestors for prosperity.

The final artifact in the exhibition was a Yoruba ceremonial knife. Ohop said the knife was one of the hardest artifacts to identify – at first labeling it as a fan or a paddle. Goodreau said the knife is made of wood, animal bone, leather, inlaid metal, and brass wire and was used as a part of ceremonies to “enhance the power of chiefdom.”

Vertically above each artifact hangs a sketched, photoshopped, and printed small image of all the artifacts and two large charcoal drawings of the reliquary figures created by Ohop.

For the small images, Ohop said she sketched the artifacts using pen, marker, and pencil, before placing them into photoshop and digitally editing them.

“When you look into the textbooks, they would always have these field sketches of what the artifact would have looked like – and they’re really just pen and ink sketches, but I had some of them right in front of me, so, I was like, ‘Let’s just make them a little more detailed and add color,’” she said.

Ohop added while creating a theme, debating a color scheme, working with photoshop, and making posters and labels, the project, in some ways, helped her strengthen her graphic design skills.

“This not only taught me more about art history – this will actually help me complete the minor that Yumi inspired me to do. Actually, just doing all of the illustrations made me want to create an art history book,” she said.

Goodreau said the exhibition was great practice for her because she eventually wants to work in a museum.

“It definitely made me realize correct museum practices,” she said.

Ohop said, “It’s kind of cool because she is the art history one while I’m the illustrator, but we kind of just came together and did our own thing.”

“We both have our strengths, and it kind of shows that working with other majors is really helpful,” Goodreau added.

Ohop also acknowledged Park Huntington’s effort to guide them in the right direction. “It was just really great to have her coaching us along the way,” she said.

“This literally would have been impossible without her,” Goodreau added.

Park Huntington said, “It was really nice to work with them. I was just here to give them guidance.”

Goodreau said, “The two images [of the reliquary figures] are actually placeholders for now. I’m going to do more research, make a map of Africa and talk about the different characteristics of eastern Africa and western Africa, and Aemilia is going to illustrate it. I think it will educate the public more.”

The exhibition will be on display until Sept. 12.