Opened just this past Wednesday is a new exhibit at the National Museum of African Art titled Visions From the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone. It displays works from the collection of William Siegmann, a curator and collector of art from that region. There are all sorts of items on display: masks, jewelry, fabrics and more. Luckily for us, Siegmann wanted to collect everything he could about a culture, not just rare works. What makes this exhibit so cool is that we get to see rare ceremonial works along with items intended for everyday use which gives us a more complete picture of each culture.
There were objects used by royalty and those solely used by commoners. There were objects used in times of seriousness or ceremony and objects used for fun. What I like about this is the breadth of insight we are given. Most museum pieces are extraordinarily rare and while wonderful, they do not give us insight into everyday life of that time. Most exhibits have a narrow focus, which is good when you have some historical perspective but if you know nothing about a subject, like I did with Liberian and Sierra Leonean cultures, you want to learn as much as possible.
Dan or Mano artist, Liberia
Mask with shoulder cloth
Early to mid-20th century
Wood, animal fur, feathers (of the great blue turaco, Corythaeola cristata), cotton, beads
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of William Siegmann 2011.70.1
I thoroughly enjoyed the masks. Both cultures used masks to bring the human and spirit worlds together. According to the exhibit, there are 31 different ethnic groups in Liberia and Sierra Leone all-told, but they all shared this belief of combining the two worlds. Many of the masks on display were used for specifically male or female ceremonies, such as coming of age, and shared similarities across the different ethnic groups. Just the overall diversity of the different mask styles is amazing.
From “prestige art” to “common art,” Visions From the Forest, is more than just an exhibit of pieces, it’s a cultural collection. If you need guidance on how to view this exhibit, a panel on the wall offers suggestions of themes to look for in the exhibit such as surface and decoration or theme and motif. This exhibit is only on display until August 17th so check it out when you have the chance.