Science & Research

Collection puts African history on display

By
Staff Writer

Starting today, collections of African artwork arranged by an archaeology department class are on display in the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World. Rachel Engmann, a postdoctoral fellow at the Joukowsky Institute, instructed a class this fall entitled ARCH 1615: “Art/Artifact: The Art and Material Culture of Africa,” in which her four students explored perceptions about African history and collected pieces of artwork.

For the last two months, Michael Becker ’13, Camila Pacheco-Fores ’14 and Jessica Sawadogo ’14 have worked on developing their projects with help from Engmann and curators at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. 

“The task of trying to cover the art of an entire continent is an incredibly difficult one,” Becker said. “Engmann did so with nuance of sophistication.” 

The class aims to “examine African objects’ pivotal role in Africa, as well as Europe and the United States,” according to the course description.

Using knowledge learned in  class, the students were responsible for developing a display of about 10 objects, writing a 300-word introduction text and 100-word blurbs about each object. Both Becker and Pacheco-Fores said it was difficult to explain objects with such complicated meanings to people with little background in the subject, especially in so few words. 

Pacheco-Fores, a concentrator in history of art and architecture, had no prior experience with this discipline. Her display, entitled “Akua’ba Speaks,” features the fertility dolls of the Asante people of central and southern Ghana. Pacheco-Fores explained the importance of the stories these dolls hold. “There’s the story of how they got their names, the ideals of beauty they hoped is passed on to the child, the story of the carvers,” she said. 

She explained that women attempting to conceive would care for these dolls as though they were real children and added that each doll has its own unique characteristics. Pacheco-Fores also discussed how the role of these dolls has changed over time. Today, these dolls are manufactured in Ghana and exported to places such as Pier 1 Imports. 

“It’s interesting how they come out of their original context and feed into the global context,” she said.

“I found out (during the process) that learning with objects is so much more meaningful than just writing a research paper about something I have never seen before,” Pacheco-Flores said.

Becker, an Africana studies concentrator, developed a display based on the role of Christian missionaries in Africa. His display, “Appropriating Christianity: Colonial Missionaries, Contested Syncretism and Christianity in the Kingdom of the Kongo” explores the role of Christianity in the Kongo, first introduced in the late 1400s by Portuguese traders. The introduction to his exhibit reads, “This exhibit takes a distinctive approach to Kongolese Christianity, discussing the ways missionaries attempted to replace, disrupt and eradicate Kongolese religious practices, and the ways in which Kongolese people appropriated Christianity towards their own ends.” 

His exhibit, which will go on display in January in the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center, features objects entitled “Sculpture of Franciscan Priest or St. Francis,” “Sculpture of Praying Figure,” “Sculpture of Nun” and “Pedestal Figure of Virgin Mary.” These and other pieces were Becker’s way of “trying to look at the ways Christ operated in the Kingdom of the Kongo,” he said.

The students said they tried to represent African art in their displays differently than it is usually presented. “We asked question after question (in discussion) about how we should represent African material and culture,” Pacheco-Flores said. 

During the semester, the students visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design. “Time after time, we’ve seen how (African) culture has been marginalized,” Pacheco-Flores said. She added that African artwork is less represented at these museums than art from other cultures. 

Becker and Pacheco-Flores both said the class helped them effectively tackle issues of misrepresentation of Africa. “The class was full of really robust discussion,” Becker said. “(Engmann) was interested in letting us guide where we wanted the class to go.”

 

Correction: A previous version of this article identified the instructor of ARCH 1615: “Art/Artifact: The Art and Material Culture of Africa” as Rebecca Engmann. In fact, her name is Rachel Engmann. The Herald regrets the error. 

  • Anonymous

    I hope the students were told how African cultural artefacts came to American museums,including the Museum of Fine Arts,Boston. Would they have been informed,for example, that the people of Benin ,Nigeria,are asking for the return of their artefacts looted by the British in 1807 in a brutal invasion?
    The students should read about this nefarious attack. Kwame Opoku.

  • Michael Becker '13

    The intimate relationship between colonialism and collecting was a central theme of our course, and something we discussed in great deal and tried to consider with sensitivity as we were putting together our exhibits. My exhibit particularly is trying to center the colonial encounter, including the ways in which this sort of collecting served to fundamentally distort Western “knowledge” about the Kongo. I know that two of the pieces I’m displaying were collected by Reverend Charles Hartsock, a Baptist missionary who graduated from Brown and who was stationed at Irebu. (One of these pieces, a Ngala neckring, shows the signs of being cut off the neck of its owner.) Other pieces have more unclear provenances, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they also were collected in violent and colonial ways. I feel very conflicted about displaying objects collected in this way at all (repatriation seems only just), but I hope that by underscoring the process of collecting itself, I can at least prompt audiences to deeply consider it.

  • Anonymous

    BDH needs to make sure they get the professors’ name right..