for African Art: Relevant and Alive
quiz time: How many institutions in the United States deal with
the exhibition, appreciation, and interpretation of African art?
The logical answer would be, oh, maybe 20? 30 Even 50?
Try two. “And the other one is a part of the Smithsonian Institution,”
says Anne Starke, Deputy Director of the Museum for African Art
(MFAA). What’s left, of course, is the quaint Soho Museum – located
in an obscure nook of downtown Broadway, near Prince Street. It
is the only independent institution of its kind in the country.
This fact is stunning, especially when you consider that the MFAA,
in its current location, is too small to house a permanent exhibit.
“We’re in the process of securing funding for a new, far larger
space in Northern Manhattan,” Starke says. “But that building
won’t be ready for at least a couple of years. In the meanwhile,
we’re doing the best we can.”
And their efforts are admirable, indeed. Even while changing exhibits
every 3-4 months, the MFAA has deeply impacted the community with
its consistent cultural and educational excellence. “Education
is indeed a large part of our mission,” said Heidi Holder, Director
of Education at MFAA. “When you think of it, it all hangs together.
Learning about African art and culture, and doing it in a quality
fashion brings African-American children far more in touch with
their origin and heritage than they otherwise would have a chance
to be. We want them to acquire a sense of self, ask questions,
and make connections.”
In order to do so, each exhibit–the MFAA has had 40 in its 18
years of existence, most receiving universal acclaim–is carefully
designed to achieve a profound cultural and educational purpose.
Some of the recent ones have dealt with the history of hair, and
the meaning and mythology of masks. The current wildly successful
exhibit, running through March 3rd, is entitled “Bamana: The Art
of Existence in Mali.”
Bamana people believe in the existence of a ‘force’,” Holder said.
“This force is inside every person and every object; it is some
kind of a deeply spiritual entity. Such a force, once harnessed,
can take many forms. They can be political, cultural, create resonant
symbols, even cure pain or unite communities toward a common goal.”
Through a combination of school tours, after-school programs,
workshops, booklets, and specially prepared Teachers’ Guides,
students not only learn to appreciate African art but are acquainted
with the geography and economy of Mali, as well as its cultures
and customs. “We try to make the programs as interactive, as all-encompassing,
as hands-on, as possible,” Holder said. “People, especially students,
tend to think of African art as something old, out-of-date, purely
traditional. But we want them to get rid of that misconception:
in fact, this art is vibrant, alive, always changing, constantly
impacted by our times. It is tremendously relevant to everything
that’s going on in our lives, right here, right now.”
The museum’s work does not stop there. The MFAA also aims to emerge
as the leading publisher of school-books and academic texts on
African art. “We want to be the preeminent resource on the subject
in the United States,” said Starke. “And I think we’re well on
our way of getting there.” #
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