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Muscarelle’s show inspired by ‘African Animals’

Muscarelle Museum of Art
Lamberson Hall
The College of William and Mary
Post Office Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795

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animals MuscarelleMuscarelle Museum of Art
Lamberson Hall
The College of William and Mary
Post Office Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795

The Muscarelle Museum of Art has just opened a new exhibition called “Animals in African Art.” The pieces consist mainly of ceremonial masks but also include weapons, drums, ivory works and even a full-body costume.

The objects come from 15 different countries in the equatorial region of Africa, and all share stylistic elements inspired by animals. The exhibition will remain open until May 29. Wallace Gusler, whose collection comprises the display, will give a free talk at the museum April 14 at 5:30 p.m. Docent tours are available every Sunday at 2 p.m.

The first thing one notices about the works displayed, which were all crafted in ancient cultural tradition for ceremonial use, is the range of exotic materials that comprise them. The masks, which are a mix of the facial features of humans and one or more animals, are constructed from thick, heavy wood and are decorated with feathers, copper, ram horns, glass beads, cowry shells and animal hair and fur. According to museum curator Ann Madonia, the cowry shells that adorn the masks are quite rare and are a traditional symbol of wealth. One notable mask from the Baga Nalu society in Guinea is almost five ft. in length and has crocodile, antelope, heron and chameleon features. The mask is covered in natural paints and is accentuated by a skirt of raffia grass.

A village power figure from the Songye society in the Democratic Republic of Congo is especially adorned. This three-ft. wooden sculpture of a man sports a cow horn on his head, a goat horn on his chest and a skirt (which you will not find at the outlet mall) made from a combination of snake and cat skins. The museum’s wall placard informs visitors that animal parts are often included on sculptures and are traditionally thought to imbue the sculpture with magical powers. Sculptures with intact animal parts are rare because of both the extreme rate at which the parts decay and the African custom of discarding the animal parts as a way to retire a sculpture’s magical power.

Another oft-used material is ivory. The elephant tusk can be made into a trumpet or the ivory can be carved into handles and sheaths for ceremonial weapons. madonia explains that ivory is a status symbol and is usually owned only by royalty, who may have used an ivory trumpet to announce their arrival.

All ceremonial weapons are made with a common reptilian theme. This may be as simple as an etching of a chameleon on the handle or as complex as a knife blade designed to look like the open jaws of a crocodile. One knife encased in a sheath is little more than a baby crocodile with its legs removed.

As all of the masks are ceremonial; the ceremony itself plays an important role in understanding the works shown at the Muscarelle.

Though the pieces in this collection are made in centuries-old traditional styles, almost none of them are more than 70 years old. This is due to the nature of the materials used to make the masks and other objects: primarily wood. Because of the wet, hot climate of equatorial Africa, wood decays rapidly and can crack when moved to a drier climate such as that found in Virginia. Materials from animals -- fur, skin, horns and so on -- deteriorate even faster.

While the newness of the works does not make them any less legitimately traditional, some bits of modernity do creep in. A hat from the Lega society in the Congo, for example, is made of woven elephant hair, shells and an assortment of common clothing buttons.

This mix of materials -- two found in nature and one found at your local Old Navy -- provide a humorous if jarring reminder as to just how recent most of these works are.

One wooden drum on display is thought by Madonia to be influenced by the oppression in the region by Dutch colonists. Like most drums, this one includes a man carved into the side, but it is unusual in that his figure is not stretched as is common in African art but is rather compressed and given an unhappy facial expression.

The exhibition is supplemented with ambient music selected from Ewell’s music library to enhance the experience. The music, from Ghana, includes traditional African drums and the xylophone.

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