Best of Mehta collection comes to Montgomery
By ROBYN BRADLEY LITCHFIELD found at Tuscaloosa
Traveling the African continent for many years, Dileep and Martha
Mehta of Atlanta have acquired more than memories. They have purchased
wood sculptures from the Asante peoples of Ghana, wood and raffia masks
from the Gola people of Liberia and Sierra Leone, a colorful cotton and
silk Kente wrapper from the Ewe peoples of Ghana and Togo and more.And they have agreed to share some of the highlights of their vast collection
with Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts visitors. The exhibition "Africa
Celebrates the Art of Living: From the Collection of Dileep and Martha
Mehta" opened Thursday and runs through July 2006.
"The Mehtas have helmet masks, sculptures, ceramics, textiles and more.
It's a wonderful collection," said museum director Mark M. Johnson, who met
the Mehtas several years ago and approached them about lending some of their
African art objects to the museum.
Currently traveling, the Mehtas were not available for comment, but they did
share their feelings in a statement about the exhibition:
"Rarely does a collector begin to assemble a group of art objects
single-mindedly or with a single goal - certainly not initially. A constellation
of motives gradually takes shape and propels the collector forward. The initial
acquisition might stem from an accidental encounter with an object that
'clicks,' catching the collector's fancy and curiosity."
Their collection also "clicked" with Johnson, who approached the
Mehtas about making at least a few of their pieces available to Alabamians.
Dr. Bill Dewey, an art historian on faculty at the University of Tennessee in
Knoxville who specializes in African art, said the Mehtas' vast collection
"He (Dileep Mehta) has a preference for sculptures and masks, so the
majority of the collection is from West and Central Africa," said Dewey,
whom Johnson asked to curate the exhibition. "But he does have a few
textiles and other things."
For the Montgomery show, Dewey said he tried to gather as diverse a show as
But before taking on the project, Dewey visited the couple in Atlanta.
"They have hundreds of pieces, but not all are on display. What is (on
display) is scattered throughout their home," Dewey said. "So the
quandary was how to present a show that shows the range of what they have while
making a relatively small selection."
Dewey finally narrowed the Montgomery show down to about 40 objects.
One of the highlights for Dewey, who grew up in what is now Zimbabwe (formerly
Rhodesia), is a Betu or Bowu mask of wood and raffia.
Used by a men's association for entertainment, the mask is very old and very
beautiful, he said.
"I like it in particular because it honors a beautiful woman," he
But this mask, topped with a carving of a woman with a very long neck and
surrounded by a raffia costume along the bottom, was worn on top of the head
like a crest.
"It (entertainment) was performed very energetically with the dancer
jumping up and down and twirling around," he said. "At some point in
the performances, small masqueraders (children) would come out from beneath the
skirt, run around and then go back underneath."
Because the raffia portion can be messy, collectors don't always send back the
costume portion of this type of object, he said, so it's nice to see the
Dewey said other highlights include a grouping of small figures, often called
"But in Africa, these are not used as dolls by little kids," he said.
"They are for women's initiation and for encouraging fertility."
There also are other figures, twin figures from the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
The Yorubas, who have one of the highest percentages of twin births, believe
that twins share a soul, he said.
"So if one twin dies, the brother or sister will want to follow the twin
into death. Parents don't want that to happen, so they have a small twin figure
carved and care for it just as they do the living twin," Dewey said.
Johnson said these figures and other objects are not the first pieces of African
art the Montgomery museum has exhibited, but they are part of something
Unlike previous exhibitions - impressive traveling exhibitions of African art -
this exhibition will remain on view for a full academic year.
With school tours scattered throughout the year, some schoolchildren miss
exhibitions, either coming before a show opens or after it has moved on to the
next venue, he said.
The Mehtas have agreed to leave their objects on view at the museum for a longer
than usual period, making it available to all school groups as well as other
"That's asking a lot of a lender, but the Mehtas are very open to
suggestions and ideas on how museums might use their collection," Johnson
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