A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Washington and Jefferson College
Home Showcase: A foot in each of 2 worlds
Sunday, February 06, 2005 By Lynda Guydon Taylor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As she headed off to teach school one day in Ghana, art professor Pat Maloney dressed in a black and white African print pants outfit. But her housekeeper, Beatrice Davies, warned her it would be inappropriate.
Working in Ghana on a Fulbright scholarship, the Washington and Jefferson College professor appreciated the beautiful fan-shaped design on the cloth. But to Ghanaians, the outfit signaled mourning and symbolized bereavement. Her African students would have thought Davies had died.
In the United States, the thin-skinned are sometimes accused of wearing their hearts on their sleeves. But in Ghana, it's common for men and women to wear their sentiments on their clothes.
In the Fante language of Ghana, efie kanea adum means the light in the house is extinguished, a way of expressing a loved one's death. It was that message Maloney would have been conveying.
As a white experiencing African culture, Maloney learned one easily can offend by wearing the wrong clothing at a particular ceremony.
Maloney remained in Ghana from 1993 to 1995, teaching art at the University College of Education of Winneba, learning the language and soaking up the culture. She went to document in video and slides the aesthetics and technology of pottery.
She came away with a deep respect for the culture. While some appreciate or recognize African or African American art only during Black History Month, with Maloney, it's a longtime love affair.
Over the years, she's collected enough sculpture, pottery, fabrics and paintings to turn her W&J office into a small gallery. Pottery sits on shelves. Paintings hang on the walls. Tables overflow with cloth, instruments, masks and sculptures. There's more in her home.
A poster of Nigerian potter Ladi Kwali sparked Maloney's interest in visiting the continent, in hopes of meeting the artist. The poster hangs on Maloney's office wall. While working at the Smithsonian Institution on a fellowship in 1985, she was in the Museum of Natural History when she saw one of Kwali's pots.
She already was familiar with Kwali's work. In 1977, she had seen it at a conference of the National Council on Education for Ceramic Arts. The piece she created was so voluptuous, so beautiful, Maloney remembers it still.
Later, Maloney won the Fulbright and was assigned to Nigeria. Sadly for Maloney, Kwali had died by that time. At the last minute, Maloney was reassigned to Ghana, beginning more than decade of a link to its artists and people.
In her office, as she picks up a piece of art, she recalls a fond memory, something about the culture or the artist.
A carved wood sculpture of five Ashanti men with intertwined arms demonstrates unity. Given to her by a Ghanaian student, it depicts a chief and elders whose wisdom is trusted in matters of marriage, family, legal or spiritual problems.
Another wood sculpture, carved by graduate student Noble Dzglebor, resembles a swan with its head twisted toward its back. Like other pieces, the symbolic shape carries a special meaning.
"One of the most meaningful pieces for my students and for Africans, especially in Ghana, is this piece, and this piece is called sankofa," Maloney said.
It means you can always undo your mistakes. It also means never forget your roots, go back to your roots.
African fabric is rich in symbolism. Holding up a dress, she explains the meaning of the print depicting fallen trees. It represents when one person falls, the rest of the community has to help him up.
Iconic symbols such as sankofa are used widely in African art on cloth and carved sculptures because it communicates, Maloney said.
A stool carved with a specific symbol identifies one's clan or family. Carved ancestral figures, common to households, look decorative, but they, too, have a purpose. Through them, family members speak to their ancestors.
"The art of Africa is not just a painting or a sculpture or a drawing. It is the cloth they wear. It is the symbolism they use in their wood carvings. It is the drawings they use on their clay vessels. It's the printing they use for funeral cloth, and it all speaks a language," Maloney said.
Of the many pieces of art she owns, Maloney said, perhaps the most misunderstood, is the African mask. A mask seems to come alive during a ceremony, but when the event ends, it loses something.
"I have something that I've taken out of a personal ceremony and I've brought it to America to my office, and all I can do for my students is say this was used for a special ceremony. But if you don't hear the dancing, the drumming, the singing, if you don't see the cloth, if you don't see the celebration and if you don't see how the mask is worn and for what purpose -- it might be to celebrate a harvest, it might be to celebrate a wedding -- this is just like a souvenir."
Other pieces show African resourcefulness. By stretching strings across a dried gourd no bigger than the palm of the hand, a "thumb piano" is created. Listening to it is like hearing a xylophone.
"The art is every aspect of their life. It's not something they put on their resume. African art really is a ritual. It's a ritual to express their identity as people. So when a mask gets made, my African artists always say, 'Prof, we make pieces for a purpose.' "
Back at W&J, where Maloney teaches African art, she believes it's important that students experience the culture through the eyes of an African. To fill in the blanks, students visit Ghanaian Paschal Yao Younge at West Virginia University for a two-hour discussion on dance and music. Younge directs the university's World Music Center, its African Drum and Dance Ensemble and an African Music Studies course. Maloney believes his talk broadens their understanding of the culture.
"I think it's good for them to see both because I've visited, but I'm not an African. I came back here and now I have two feet. I have a foot in this world and [the African] world and I like it."
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