A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Owen D. Mort Jr. has made gifts to museums around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution and the prestigious Heard Museum in Phoenix. So how did this collector happen to choose Salt Lake City to receive 3,000 pieces of African art?
The late director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, E. Frank Sanguinetti, long suspected subversion was a major motivator. Asked about that possibility in a telephone interview, Mort laughed and said, “Good for him.”
“I had lived in Salt Lake City in the early 1960s and was familiar with the area,” he added. “There were not a lot of [African Americans] there; it was a cultural hole. I wanted to give people a chance to see some of the material, do some studying on their own and learn about these areas [of the world].”
Mort lived and worked in Zaire but collected from all over Africa. He initially gave the UMFA 2,000 objects in 1985. “He visited the museum quietly, on his own,” recalls then-assistant UMFA director Chuck Loving, via phone from the University of Notre Dame. “He planned to give it to a public institution, and thought the collection would make a big difference in Utah.”
While the UMFA has made other acquisitions, “the core of our collection continues to be gifts and loans from Mr. Mort,” said Bernadette Brown, curator of African art, adding that Mort will attend the upcoming public Juneteenth celebration for a look at “Africa: Arts of a Continent,” which hangs through Sept. 15.
Budget constraints dictated narrowing the number of objects exhibited, so Brown chose to focus on four cultures: the Dogon of Mali, the Baulé of the Ivory Coast, the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Kuba Kingdom of the Congo.
Brown said in some cultures the head is where soul is situated, so you will see many large heads represented, “but the seat of emotion is the stomach, which is why you see large navels extruding” from a figure. Many items have a utilitarian use, as well.
One intriguing piece is a Blolo Bian, or “Spirit Spouse,” from the Ivory Coast’s Baulé culture. The idea is that each person has a spirit mate of the opposite sex in the Other World, to whom you were married before you were born. The spirit follows you into mortal life, aiding in matters of wealth, achievement and interpersonal relationships. This spiritual spouse can also cause trouble if it isn’t happy, so it is kept well fed, clean and protected with a covering.
While the African collection was “resting” the past several years, many of the Egyptian works were also in storage. The new exhibition includes Egyptian burial objects from various dynasties. Themes include Fragments of the Past, Adornment for Life and Life After, Sacred Writing—Hieroglyphs and Gods and Goddesses.
Mort appreciates the UMFA’s diligent effort to take care of his pieces, now numbering some 3,000, and is eager to show off his huge bead collection next. He thinks “the necklaces, earrings and so forth from Africa” will appeal more “to the ladies and girls” than the carvings.
Upon his return from a couple of years in Afghanistan, Mort taught himself to play and to build his own stringed instruments. That led to organizing the top-notch Blythe (Calif.) Bluegrass Festival some 18 years ago. This Renaissance man also created two volumes for the UMFA on about 500 pieces in the collection. “All handwritten and illustrated, illuminated pages and all. Bound in leather,” he said with evident pride. That was after leaving the board of an Arizona button museum, another specialty.
Mort continues to take pleasure in collecting and bestowing, whether to the Smithsonian or a museum in Casper, Wyo. Because, he said simply, “Different things go different places.”
Carole Mikita Reporting KSL TV A California man has made a huge donation of African art to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. He's a world traveler who says he is fascinated by other cultures.
A wood carving called The Primordial Couple from southern Mali in Africa. Before retiring, David Mort worked as an engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He lived there for nearly nine years, fell in love with the various cultures, and began collecting art. This new exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts includes just some of the 3,000 pieces he has donated to Utahns.
Owen David Mort, Jr., Donor 'Africa: Arts of a Continent': "It was just a great opportunity to give them a chance to see how these other people lived and what their cultures are like. So,to me it was it was just a great opportunity to give to a community."
Generous donations from a number of collectors gave birth to this exhibit. The pieces represent four distinct regions of Africa. All of the artworks are shown at eye level for children to soak in the experience.
Bernadette Brown, Curator, Utah Museum of Fine Arts: "When they leave, hopefully they'll take something with them, bit of information, understanding about another culture, another people."
David Mort: "It's an outstanding showing of some of the finest African material, that I know of anywhere."
David Mort grew up in a small town in California never dreaming African art would change his life. Now his unique collection is here for generations to enjoy.
The museum will hold a free public celebration in honor of the exhibit tomorrow June 18th from noon to 4:00 p.m.
May 25, 2005 - SALT LAKE CITY, UT- After several years of rest, African art from the permanent collection returns for public viewing at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA). The exhibition, Africa: Arts of a Continent, opens June 3, 2005, and includes several new acquisitions never seen before by the public.
To “kick off” the opening, the UMFA is pleased to host a free public
celebration, “Juneteenth,” on Saturday, June 18 from noon – 4 pm.
“Juneteenth” is a worldwide celebration that began in 1865 celebrating the
end of slavery in America. The festivities at the UMFA include live jazz by
"Royal Roots," a jewelry-making activity for children and families,
art by local African Americans, and a sampling of ethnic food. This event is
sponsored by the African American Community, Lutheran Social Services, and the
The forms and meanings of traditional African art are strikingly diverse. To illustrate this diversity, Africa: Arts of a Continent focuses on four cultures: the Dogon of Mali, the Baulé of the Ivory Coast, the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Kuba Kingdom of the Congo. This organization makes evident the patterns of form and meaning that are unique to a region as well as the differences in works from other areas. Africa: Arts of a Continent also incorporates several ancient Egyptian burial objects from various dynasties and explores the importance of the Nile.
“The UMFA is pleased to see the return of African art to our galleries,” states UMFA Director David Dee. “Each work has a unique story behind its creation and utilization. Visitors to the exhibition are taken on a journey through regions of Africa to experience the rites and rituals of its native cultures.”
One of the intriguing objects displayed from the Baulé culture of the Ivory Coast is a Blolo Bian, or "Spirit Spouse." A Blolo Bian represents the spirit mate of the opposite sex that each person has in the Other World. The Baulé people believe that before you were born, you were married in the spirit world. When you are born, your spirit spouse follows you into mortal life. The spirit spouse helps you throughout life in personal achievement, interpersonal relationships and in matters of wealth. However, a spirit spouse may also cause trouble if it is not kept happy. Therefore, it must be kept well-fed, clean and protected with a covering.
During the run of the exhibition, the UMFA is pleased to offer special rates for groups of five to 20. For $7.50 per person, guests are given admission to Africa: Arts of a Continent and lunch in the Museum’s
f/Stop Café. The luncheon menu features a choice of homemade soup, salad and a drink or a half-sandwich, salad and a drink. Reservations must be made at least two weeks in advance and can be made by calling 801.581.3580.
read also UMFA UTAH
“Arts of a Continent. ”African art from the permanent collection returns for public viewing at UMFA. The exhibition, Africa: Arts of a Continent, is a permanent rotating exhibition, and includes several new acquisitions never seen before by the public. Africa: Arts of a Continent focuses on four cultures: the Dogon of Mali, the Baulé of the Ivory Coast, the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Kuba Kingdom of the Congo. Africa: Arts of a Continent also incorporates several ancient Egyptian burial objects from various dynasties and explores the importance of the Nile.
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