A free audio tour narrated by African artists, scholars and community members guides visitors through the public and private aspects of the art in various African cultures in the exhibition African Art, African Voices: Long Steps Never Broke a Back (October 2, 2004-January 2, 2005). The audio tour, which is offered free to visitors through the generosity of Target Corporation, draws upon the voices of these cultural advisors to help visitors make the imaginative leap from the galleries of an American art museum into the places in Africa where the works of art were produced, displayed, and utilized as objects of everyday life. Below are brief biographies of the exhibition advisors.
Topic: Egungun Masquerades
On view in African Art, African Voices are seven Egungun costumes, one dating to the 1970s; others created in 2002 in Nigeria. Accompanying the costumes in the exhibition will be audio interviews and video footage of the creation of the costumes, as well as performances of them in Erin Osun, a small town in southwest Nigeria.
Yoruba Egungun "power masquerades" combine dance, acrobatics, music and popular theater. AyanAgalu ("May the god of drumming carry one aloft") is part of an extended family of Yoruba acrobatic dancers, masqueraders, traditional drummers and praise singers originating from Erin Osun. They are responsible for encouraging egungun (ancestral) sprits to visit earth in the form of masquerades. Lamidi Ayankunle, who coordinates the AyanAgalu family’s performances and is heard on the audio tour, is a masterful Bata drummer with an international reputation for this traditional knowledge that is derived from 13 houses of drummers from his lineage and his drumming prowess.
Advisor: Sylvester Ogbechie
Topic: Contemporary African Art
Drawing upon his training as an artist and art historian in Nigeria and the United States, Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie has collaborated with exhibition coordinator John Zarobell in assembling a dynamic group of more than 40 works of contemporary African art. Ogbechie was born and grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria, among Yoruba culture. He speaks both Igbo and Yoruba languages fluently enough to pass as a "native" in both environments. He has lived in major Nigerian cities and also in rural areas, and thus has an understanding of how life unfolds in both contexts. Ogbechie, who teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara, studies ways in which African art has changed since the 20th century and how modern and contemporary African artists respond to their ancestral cultures and cosmopolitan heritage. "Modern and contemporary African art reflects the enduring character of African creativity and its ability to adopt and adapt to new forms," he says. "This art is dynamic and deeply historical at the same time, willing to confront newness and change without sacrificing ancestral legacies."
Advisor: Fu-Kiau K. Bunseki
Topic: Sacred Medicines of the Kongo
With an installation of 5 Kongo sculptures from the Seattle Art Museum’s Katherine White collection, Fu-Kiau K. Bunseki, philosopher and lecturer on Kongo culture, helps to explain why what has been called a "fetish" is better regarded as medicine in Kongo thought. Fu-Kiau’s audio interview, taped in Seattle in June 2001, touches on how sculptures reveal healing practices in the Republic of the Congo.
Fu-Kiau was born in Manianga, Democratic Republic of the Congo. He founded Luyalungunu Lwa Kumba-Nsi Institute, a pioneering center that focused on documenting the Kongo system of thought. His work has fostered an increased awareness of the cosmology of Kongo thought and healing practices and helps trace Lemba’s influence as a fundamental part of Palo Mayombe in Cuba, Vodou Petro in Haiti, and Candomble Angola in Brazil.
Advisor: Kakuta Ole Maimai Hamisi
Topic: Collecting by and for Maasai Memories
In 1999, an intern named Kakuta Ole Maimai Hamisi studied the Seattle Art Museum’s collection of Maasai art. After reviewing the museum’s installations and collecting goals, Hamisi suggested ways to upgrade the Maasai selection. A number of the items that he collected are on view in African Art, African Voices, along with video footage of the collecting process.
Hamisi was born and raised in the Merrueschi region of southeastern Kenya among the Maasai of Kaputei. He grew up with a family of 16 brothers and sisters, 37 uncles and a few hundred cattle, goats and sheep. Initially trained to herd goats and sheep, then Zebu cattle, Hamisi’s aptitude for learning was noticed by missionaries who taught under an acacia tree, using the ground as a slate. In 1985, he was offered one of the few openings for a Maasai to attend a boarding school in urban Loitokitok. After Hamisi completed his high school education there, his parents urged him to rejoin his age-set and undergo the initiation to become a moran (warrior). Participating in lion hunts and other traditional rituals, Hamisi was chosen as an assistant chief of his age-set. But bad droughts prompted him and other warriors to move to the coast of Kenya to take jobs with tourism companies. In 1995, he left Kenya to study at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
Advisor: Daniel "Koo Nimo" Amponsah
Topic: Regalia from the Asante Kingdom
Audio commentary and video footage of historic and recent Asante processions will accompany an installation of Ghanaian gold rings, Kente cloth and other Asante items of adornment. A hallmark of Asante creativity is its ability to take the familiar and infuse it with extraordinary insights through its association with stories and proverbs. In the audio tour, Daniel "Koo Nimo" Amponsah, a native of Ghana and master of West African palm-wine guitar music, will shed light on the regalia, music, gestures and implied proverbs of those Asante kingdom processions.
Koo Nimo was born in Ghana’s Foase, Atwima Nol district in 1934. Using the name Koo (short for Kofi- born on Friday) Nimo (one who takes blame for what someone else has done), he gained international acclaim for his High Life style of "palm wine guitar," while also directing drum orchestras and playing the seperewa, an African harp-lute. In honor of his talents and "intellectual philanthropy," in 1997 Amponsah received a Grand Medal for Lifetime Service to Ghana.
Advisor: Babatunde Lawal
Topic: Gelede Masks
To provide a cultural context for the exhibition’s six Nigerian Gelede and Efe masks, the audio tour will include professor Babatunde Lawal’s evocations of the prayers, jokes, riddles and songs that the masks’ former wearers once delivered. During Yoruba performances, "for the moment, life feels like a paradise," Lawal says. He once wrote that "art is an aspect of what the Yoruba call ifogbontaayse, or using wisdom to remake/improve the world."
Lawal was raised in Lagos, Nigeria, and began a distinguished academic career as a dean of the faculty of arts at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He is currently professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University and has served as visiting professor in a number of universities in Africa, United States and Brazil. His book, The Gelede Spectacle: Art, Gender and Social Harmony in an African Culture (University of Washington Press, 1996), is a study of the use of visual and performing arts to promote nonviolence and social harmony.
Advisor: Gilbert Lo-oh Mbeng
Topic: Art from the Kom Kingdom
In 2002, Gilbert Lo-oh Mbeng, a member of the Kom Kingdom, a closely guarded royal sanctuary on a mountaintop in Cameroon, traveled to the U.S. to advise the Seattle Art Museum on the presentation of a large selection of royal art from his lineage. Works from his culture will again be on view in African Art, African Voices in an installation of Kom objects including a scepter, figures, chairs, a Ndop cloth and clothing once essential to a setting for royalty in Cameroon. In museums, Kom objects are typically displayed without comment or spectacle, but in the Kom Kingdom, during important ceremonial occasions, the sensory overload of music, the excitement of performances and the effects of abundant food and drink enhances the audience’s impression of the objects’ artistry and purpose. The audio tour features Mbeng, a descendent of a sequence of Kom court advisers, sharing his perspective on how the works should be displayed, and on the changing Kom Kingdom.
Advisor: Hannah Foday
Topic: Sowei Masks
Accompanying an installation of four Sowei masks from Sierra Leone, and several other African masks and costumes, will be video footage of masquerades of Sierra Leone’s Sande society, as well as audio recordings of conversations with a Mende woman living in the U.S. explaining the significance of the masquerades. Hannah Kema Foday was born a Mende woman in Segbwema, southeastern Sierra Leone. She earned a Bachelor's degree in French and English from Fourah Bay College, and lives in New York City. She feels strongly about passing on her Mende culture to her three children.
Among Mende women of Sierra Leone, Sande provided a sanctuary and a school for girls to be initiated into adulthood. Sande officials offered instruction in myth, history, ethics, herbalism and aspects of femininity. This society was also a major patron of the arts, sponsoring masquerades that made their presence more visible. For these masquerades, Mende women endow their mask form with a name, a personality, a costume and a volatile character. Severe unrest in Sierra Leone has largely disrupted the Sowei initiatory process, and Sande members do not write about their experiences in the society, nor do they write about their masquerades.
Advisor: Robert Farris Thompson
Topic: African Art in Motion and Basinjom
Robert Farris Thompson, Master of Timothy Dwight College at Yale University and Professor of African and Afro-American art history at Yale, has organized an installation of about 40 sculptures, integrated with audio recordings of music and video footage of dance and movement. Thompson's look at sculpture involves what he calls "a different art history, a history of art danced to multi-metric sound." Also on view are a mask and gown collected by Thompson, which was used in a Basinjom (translated as "God’s Medicine") performance. Thompson explains that when circumstances so require it, Basinjom comes to earth and manifests himself as a detective masquerade. The masked performance was designed to discipline and destroy dangerously anti-social persons in Ejagham society. In 1971, Thompson traveled inland from Western Cameroon to be initiated into Basinjom society wearing the costume that is on view.
Advisor: Won-Ldy Paye
Topic: Ga Wree Wree Mask
The exhibition’s collection of masks from Liberia is explained and demonstrated by Won-Ldy Paye, a member of the Tlo Ker Mehn, the class of professional Dan storytellers who are also accomplished musicians and keepers of Dan oral heritage. Audio interviews and video footage of performances restore elements normally excluded from masks on display: the full costumes, altered voices, character portrayals, music and dance of masquerade performance from the Dan of Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire. Visitors to the museum will move through a passage whose walls are animated by performance tapes, as stories and songs emerge from the mouths of the masks on view.
Won Ldy Paye first came to the U.S. as a guest of the U.S. Cultural Foundation to lecture on traditional West African theatre. He is founder and director of Village Drum and Masquerade, and has been a radio host and leader of many Ethno-Pop Dance Bands. He performs at major festivals around the country.