What is diversity? According to the Cambridge Dictionary, diversity is the condition or fact of being different or varied; variety. It is also defined as the mixture of races and religions the make up a group of people. As a person of Hispanic heritage, diversity means a lot to me as it allows me to learn from my fellow Hispanics and non-American cultures. This is why when looking for colleges, I wanted to enroll in a college where diversity was a huge factor. The University of Florida in Gainesville, unlike Orlando, is not a tourist stop. In fact, The University of Florida is filled with multiple cultures thanks to all the overseas and non-American background students it accepts every term. This variety of culture helps to strengthen the population’s diversity. Among these diverse cultures are: Asian, African-American, and Hispanics. In this essay, I will examine the African-Art collection at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art and discuss how it compares the community of Gainesville, Florida.
History of African-Art:
As a Puerto Rican, my heritage comes from three main races: Spaniard, Taino, and African. Therefore, African culture is meaningful to me. African art history is a wide variety of every different culture from all parts of the continent of Africa; such as the Egyptian, South African, and Nigerian cultures. In other words, African Art is a representation of many cultures. The African-Art collection at the Harn Museum focuses on Western Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa that range from the fifth century to the twenty-first century. Its purpose is to educate students and visitors on cultural diversity and help them tolerate and/or deal with other cultures and traditions. One of the pieces in this collection that illustrates some of the previously mentioned characteristics is the Ritual Axe. Originating from the Yoruba people in eastern Africa, this piece was created for ritualistic and traditional purposes. The Yoruba people were known for having many gods, so the Ritual Axe pays respect to one of them in particular as a sign of honor. The axe pays respects to Ogun, the god who controls the use and production of all things made with metal (Harn Museum). Another detail about this piece is how the carved wooden handle contains an example of the strong presence of human figures found in African artwork, as well as perfect symmetry from one side of the handle to the other.
Untitled, Date: 2002, Elias Sime, Ethiopian
Balance and symmetry are some of the characteristics that can be found on other ancient cultures, such as in Egyptian art, ancient Greek art, and modern art. Located in the Harn’s Contemporary Collection, the Untitled work by Elias Sime from 1968, is a great example of these two specifics concepts in play. Elias Sime uses the aesthetic strategies of fragmentation and assemblage to reflect on social and cultural issues of his time (Harn). Sime combined craft traditions, modernist art, and global and local conditions into this masterpiece. In this work, he worked with object and materials he found from the street and arranged them in hundreds of multi-colored buttons in concentric circles which represent the people of the world surrounding a plate which serves as a symbol of the universal need for food and sustenance (Harn). Through this art piece we can observe the fusion of multiple culture’s elements of art that creates a provoking and one of a kind masterpiece.
Continuity of African Art: Masks, Costumes, and Jewelry
As discussed this semester, African Art’s strength and legacy is represented by the continuity of its characteristics throughout thousands of years, including modern African-American artists. An example of this, is the work of Lois Mailou Jones in her painting Moon Masque (1971). The faces in this painting resemble actual individuals whose profiles are juxtaposed with tears falling from the eyes of the mask (Smit Smithsonian American Art Museum). It is easy to interpret that the mask, representing tradition and heritage, weeps for the situation of contemporary African peoples. Although this painting is not currently displayed at the museum, the masks and faces in this piece just happens to be similar to the collection of African masks and headdresses found in the Harn Museum.
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The history of African masquerades dates back as far as the Paleolithic era and is still an important part of African tradition and culture. Masks would be used for ritualistic ceremonies, served to ease transitions from life to death, and were used to represent that status and prestige by using lavish materials among other things. In the African exhibition, “Symbolism and Ceremony in African Masquerades”, the museum includes 30 masks that were created between the 20th and 21st centuries, illustrating the continuity of masking but also feature new directions in masquerades, such as the fancy dress masks of Ghana. Music and dance are as important as the costume in masquerade (Harn).
All of the pieces placed in the museum are a reflection of the extensive diversity of cultures and traditions from all of Africa. Each piece has its own importance and history. One of the pieces that drew my attention was the Masquerade (deangle) by the Mano people in Liberia.
Masquerade (deangle), 1940, Mano people Liberia
The piece on the left is still used in Masquerades by the Mano people. Some of the many components in this piece are cotton, fibers, metal, and others. Although this piece is a reflection of a female spirit, this costume is usually worn by a man whose movements imitate those of women and who speaks in a high-pitched voice (Harn). This is part of every man’s initiation ritual by their village. The face mask has some rounded features, chiseled front teeth, and narrow eyes resembling the ideal women beauty. In order to hide the identity of the male, the costume includes a tall cone-shaped cap, hand-woven shirt full made of fibers. The purpose of the noises and movements of the male during the ritual is to represent the presence of a joyous maternal figure.
Another piece of artwork that got my attention while navigating the Harn Museum online is the mask below made by the Bamana people. Originally from Mali in West Africa, many of the Bamana people live in cities instead of living in rural villages. However, traditional activities like hunting, farming, or other trades such as pottery-making, sculpting, or weaving are still important in the Bamana culture.
Headdress (Chi wara), Late 19th-20thcentury, Bamana people
The chiwara headdress is part of a masquerade performed by the Bamana Chi Wara society, which honors farmers (Harn). This piece is a representation of Chi Wara, a mythical hero, half man and half antelope who first taught humans how to grow crops. The mask is worn during harvest and planting seasons to encourage farmers, both male and female, and also to celebrate their efforts once the harvest is done. The mask does not only represent the antelope, but also combines features of other animals, that like farmers, dig the land. During ceremonies, the Chi Wara headdresses are combined with a full costume of dark raffia fibers that represents water (Harn). The reason why these are combined with a full costume of dark raffia fibers is to make a visual reference of the elemental forces of earth, sun, and water. Moreover, masquerades always feature two chi wara headdresses, one male and one female. The female chi wara is to honor the work of women in the field while symbolizing the fertility of the earth.
Another aspect of African art and fashion is jewelry. This aspect is still included in most of modern-African artists’ artwork. African jewelry is usually made of leather, shells, beads, and rubber and just like the masks, their jewelry means something deep in their culture. Not only do they represent wealth and power but in certain cases, jewelry is thought to have healing powers. This is the case with the image below.
Qur’anic Amulet (xirsi), Somali people, Somalia, 18th Century
In this example, amber and stones that were red in color were thought to have “healing and prophylactic powers” (Harn). Even in modern times, both colors are presented as thought to have healing powers. These colors are not only significant in the African culture, but in many others as well like the Cuban and Haitian cultures where good and/or bad Santeria and Voodo are big. The Amulet is known to be gifted to a bride and it is tradition for married Somali women to collect jewelry as a signal of wealth and economic independence in case of widowhood.
African jewelry is not only worn by females but also by males. The type and level of jewelry worn represent the wealth of the wearer (Africa Facts). As a result, many Archeologist have found bracelets and necklaces buried in kings and chiefs’ grave. Wearing all kinds of jewelry was a way of showing that the kings and chiefs had an abundant kingdom. Located in the Harn Museum is a bracelet thought to have worn by an oba, or king, of Benin.
Bracelet, Date: Mid-19th century, Edo people, Nigeria
Back in the ancient kingdom of Benin, there were many different materials craft workers would use. They worked with clay, leather, and wood (BBC). But their most precious materials were brass, ivory, and coral. All these materials were thought to have magical powers. Ivory was used in jewelry worn by royals due its association with elephants, which are a symbol of purity, power, strength, dignity, peace, and intelligence. This bracelet is a full representation of the Benin Kingdom’s history from the figures with long hair, beards and European style dress are Portuguese soldiers of the 16th century, the time when they fought with the Oba Esigie in his battle against the Attah of Idah (Harn).
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Overall, many aspects of African art include masks, costumes, and jewelry. Each one of them have their own value and meaning to their culture. The African exhibit at the museum offers enough information, background, culture, and art for other ethnic/racial groups and even fellow African-Americans in the area to learn about Africa’s culture and essence. This exhibition examines the process of transformation in the materiality of the mask, and through multi-media components of performance (Harn). It also reveals the importance of jewelry and how it does not only represent wealth but also is believed to provide the owner with wisdom, good luck, and hope.
Impact and Importance of the Harn Museum:
While exploring the museum, I could not stop thinking about one of the questions asked earlier during this semester. Is the cultural significance of the pieces presented lessened by being placed in the museum and labeled as art? There is always the possibility of people just admiring the beauty of all pieces without actually considering the culture significance. I am guilty of this when visiting museums but after taking this class, I have learned how to truly value and appreciate art. Considering the fact that African-Americans are one of the largest group of residents in Gainesville, this exhibition gives people the opportunity to learn more about other cultures and origins in a time where racism is unfortunately still taking place. This would not only help with people gaining more knowledge but also with appreciating and accepting others.
African culture and University of Florida:
Although in today’s society a lot of work needs to be done to increase diversity, the University of Florida has done an amazing job recognizing equality, appreciating, and respecting other cultures worldwide. They do it by accepting students with different background and heritage and by presenting exhibition with pieces from different cultures like Africa and Asia at the Harn Museum.
While researching about the African Art, I noticed how the Harn Museum links together the historic African art and culture with Gainesville’s present-day diversity and culture. One of the similarities is the importance of animals in both cultures. In various African cultures, animals are presented as a sacrifice to the gods in their rituals and glamorized as part of their daily routines. The people of Gainesville, specifically the students, do the same maybe without noticing. For instance, students from the University of Florida hold Albert the alligator close to their hearts not only because it is a known symbol of Florida but also it is the official mascot of the university. Moreover, Gainesville and the African cultures both utilize specific or some type of ceremonial clothing for important cultural events. As mentioned above, Africans utilize masks, jewelry, and costumes that are meaningful to them while performing rituals. In a similar way, the residents of Gainesville wear their own costumes for specific events. Every game day, you can see everyone wearing the university’s colors: orange and blue. These colors are a symbol of unity that brings everyone together.
In Conclusion, this essay has emphasized the importance of costumes, masks, jewelry, and figures in the diverse African culture and its correlation with Gainesville’s culture. The exhibitions of African culture and others, located at the Harn Museum, can be used to see the diversity of Gainesville, making it the reason why I applied at the University of Florida. At the university, there is a place for everyone no matter their ethnicity or race. For example, there is multiples student clubs such as: the Black Student Union, African Students Union, Hispanic-Latino Affairs, Argentine Tango Club, Asian Pacific Islander American Affairs, and even the Pazeni Sauti Africa Choir, which gathers to sing and perform African songs. Having all of these clubs has helped spreading diversity throughout the campus and the city.
- African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, 2012. Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/moon-masque-76334. December 2018.
- Activities and Involvement, Division of Student Affairs, www.studentinvolvement.ufl.edu/student- organizations.
- African Jewelry information. https://africa-facts.org/african-jewelry-2/. December 2018
- Cooksey, Susan Ph. D. Symbolism & Ceremony in African Masquerades.
- Harn Museum of Art Educator Resource. http://harn.ufl.edu/linkedfiles/educatorresource-africanmasquerades.pdf. December 2018.
- “Harn Collections.” Collections, Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, www.harn.ufl.edu/collections.
- Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art label for Bamana people, Headdress (chi wara or n’gonzon koun). Gainesville, FL Web. December 2018.
- Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art label for Edo people, Bracelet. Gainesville, FL Web. December 2018.
- Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art label for Mano People, Masquerade (deangle). Gainesville, FL Web. December 2018.
- Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art label for Sime, Elias, Untitled.Gainesville, FL Web. December 2018.
- Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art label for Somalian, Koranic Amulet (xirsi). Gainesville, FL Web. December 2018.
- Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art label for Yoruba People, Ritual Ax. Gainesville, FL Web. December 2018.
- What can we learn from the art of Benin? https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/articles/z84fvcw. December 2018
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