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    CHANGING GALLERY: “Africa: Masks, Music & Motion”

    Face Mask, Ituri Forest Wood, raffia, paint Joseph A. Towles Collection

    Face Mask, Ituri Forest
    Wood, raffia, paint
    Joseph A. Towles Collection

    Across the years, the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture has been the recipient of a number of wonderful and interesting African art objects and material culture. For the most part, these respective collections and donations have been utilized by students enrolled in various courses of the academy, which is a delightful and engaging experience. Additionally, a number of the Avery Research Center’s African-related holdings have been included in the Lowcountry Digital Library, which affords the opportunity for increased usage of the collections. In fact, a small number of masks and other artifacts that appears in this physical exhibition, Africa: Masks, Music, and Motion, are an integral part of the Lowcountry Digital Library. That being said, it is an opportune time to share with the community—academic and otherwise—additions to the Avery Research Center holdings, especially masks.

    Antelope Mask, Mali (Bambara), Wood

    Antelope Mask, Mali (Bambara), Wood

    When it comes to African masks, a noted scholar offers the following analogy, “looking at an African mask in a museum, stripped of its costume and motionless inside an exhibit case, is insome ways like watching television with the picture tube removed.” In essence, “what one sees is to a greater or lesser degree incomplete, a fraction of what was.” Even so, by observing the parts that remain, one can learn a great deal about all that is missing. For example, in rural villages throughout West and Central Africa, Kifwebe masks and others appear during celebrations and ceremonies that take place different times of the year. The masks and their transforming spirits perform during rites of passage (initiations) as young men and women enter adulthood. They perform at births and funerals as well, acknowledging the cycles of life. Accordingly, large groups of masks approach the village in a procession and they proceed to perform before audiences. Invariably, music played on flutes, ivory trumpets, slit drums, thumb pianos, and marimbas accompany the mask wearers. Thus, music is central to the performance. Moreover, the masks and other artifacts that constitute this exhibition afford us an opportunity to highlight diverse traditions in West and Central Africa, particularly as it relates to the maintenance of order in society.

    ~Curtis J. Franks, Curator