HELMET MASK by Mende or Southern Bullom (Sherbro) artist, Sierra Leone, of wood, early-to-mid twentieth century. Photographs by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu and courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

Ethnographic Arts


Visions from the Forests



The most recent exhibition to grace the National Museum of African Art is one of those elegant assemblies that speak to a capable curatorship and an excellent collection. It is not often when quality of material meets quality of presentation, but that nexus certainly describes “Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone,” showing through August 17, 2014. This stunning exhibit is thanks to the passionate endeavor of William Siegmann, collector, curator and curious human being, whose life story mirrors the depth of content found in “Visions from the Forests.”

To gain an appreciation for this exhibition one has to understand that there are levels of art, the more commonly known to which everyone has access and then there are the more layered and inscrutable levels, such as African tribal art. Africa is not one unified continent but separated into many regions, so there are distinctions and varieties. In this case, the masks, jewelry and textiles were from Liberia and its neighbor Sierra Leone. In addition, there are the male and female initiatory societies that function within these cultures and of which everyone is an integral part. Primarily drawn from a bequest of Siegmann, these are the best of the best. Extremely well made, rare, unusual, perhaps esoteric and arcane, certainly archaic, they are glimpses into the parts of lives other people are living right now. Most of the masks in the exhibition are made from wood, but because of the deep dark tone of the wood it can sometimes be mistaken for stone or metal. Imposing, they have a robust dialogue of visual components that projects a feeling, a narrative, which is presumably what the creator intended. Most feel like they are tribal chiefs or women of great dignity, with the stiff, thick head and flat face and features seeming abrupt and asserting a stolid and confident aura.

The story behind these living artifacts is more than can be outlined in an exhibition, but the show does a compelling effort in providing in-depth vignettes and background information. Take for instance the Sande Society masks which make up a significant portion of the exhibit. Community associations in Sierra Leone and Liberia perform duties which are tantamount to research, education and professional employment of hale. This Mende term, although roughly translated to medicine, is basically equivalent to any form of specialized knowledge. Thus, these societies make new discoveries, educate members regarding existing and newly developed hale and apply it within their communities as would a doctor or an engineer. The Sande Society is among the largest of these organizations encompassing nearly all adult women within the region and, as the exhibition explains, concerns itself with maintaining women’s health, well-being and promoting their interests.

PORO GBINI MASK by Mende artist, Sierra Leone, of wood, leopard skin, sheepskin, antelope skin, raffia, cotton, cowrie shells, mid-twentieth century.

An excerpt from a caption further illustrates the juicy tidbits of cultural examination present in the exhibition: “The Loma peoples of northwestern Liberia and adjacent areas of Guinea use masks during events related to Poro, the male initiation society that supervises and regulates sexual, social and political conduct within the community. Such societies are secret in the sense that members acquire knowledge that cannot be divulged to the uninitiated. Higher status within Poro means greater knowledge gained.

“To carry out the Poro society’s responsibilities, high-ranking members impersonate important spirits by donning masks and performing in public. The gazelégi mask and the Loma masks in adjacent cases correspond to three different spirits but are worn the same way—like a cap—and use a combination of animal and human forms to reflect their supernatural essence.”

There is another style of mask called Gongoli which are monstrous fool masks, with the role of the jester, serving some intricate foil through exaggerated and misshapen features. Each seems like they must have had their own part to play in their rituals and interactions with daily life. The African culture of Liberia and Sierra Leone comes across to the exhibition’s audience like as through a strange lens. This is the culture for a tribal area, at once connected to but also separated from the urban existence which is the status quo for most of us in the United States, as well as a significant portion of Sierra Leone and Liberia. We are separated partly by a wall of pantomime and theater which exists as an intermediary between our different worlds.

It is through explorers with integrity that such a barrier is breached, and for this exhibition due credit must go to Siegmann himself. A field researcher in West Africa who was also a frequent resident, Siegmann did not only acquire objects, he made personal connections, integrating himself into the world and life of those to whom he was a guest. He was an avid enthusiast of West Africa, and gave back to the countries which nurtured and excited him. He established collections at two of the principal Liberian museums, and after the terrible civil wars that wracked the region returned as an election observer. Looting had deprived the National Museum and the museum of Cuttington University of their holdings, and friends recall Siegmann ardently searching through Monrovian art shops in an attempt to recover the lost treasures. As another demonstration of this shining example of humanity, he was gowned as an honorary elder of the Wawoma clan in Liberia by the chief himself, for “sharing with the people of the Wawoma Clan their values and some aspects of their culture.”

HAT WITH TASSEL by Temne artist, Sierra Leone, of silver, early twentieth century.

The jewelry is fabulous, securing the keystone for this landmark exhibition. Though only few in number, they are stunning, mainly because Siegmann sought to find the most finely crafted expressions of Liberian and Leonese art. A square silver pendant that steps progressively inwards to become a pyramid is both robust and visually intriguing. Another pendant uses ivory with silver to create a fine display of contrast and craftsmanship.

As a last example of the surprisingly choice samples, look no further than the barrel pendant hung on chain. Whatever imagery or symbolism it represents, the big metal barrel resembles an oil drum. Evocative and unusual, the pendant titillates and tickles the mind.

With such a breadth of breathtaking objects, augmented by fine research, historical and anthropological insights—and an objectively stunning aesthetic running throughout the masks, jewelry and textiles—“Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone” is highly recommended. Keeping in mind the closing date, for summer visits to Washington, it is a priority to be included on anyone’s itinerary.







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