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Helmet Mask (Landai/Dandai) for Poro association made out of wood, pigment, feathers, fiber, cloth, fur, hair, skin
Circa: 1930-1950
Helmet Mask (Landai/Dandai) for Poro association made out of wood, pigment, feathers, fiber, cloth, fur, hair, skin Circa: 1930-1950

The Indianapolis Museum of Art has many different galleries that promote culture and history, such as in the Eiteljorg Gallery of African Art. The purpose of this museum is to promote art to the public and interest people in art through looking at art in different ways such as through its history, display and geographic background. The Eiteljorg Gallery of African Art presents the whole of the continent according to five major divisions: Northern Africa, Western Africa, Central Africa, Eastern Africa and Southern Africa. This gallery explores the visual arts of African from early times to the present by featuring over 400 different types of objects, whether they are masks, figures or textiles. Most of the objects presented in the gallery are part of religious, social, and political traditions that are disappearing as Africa continues to become more and more of the modern world. Objects such as a 4500 year old Egyptian stone figure can be found here, as well as a 400 year old royal brass plaque from the Benin Kingdom of Nigeria, a century old wooden mask from Liberia and even a helmet mask from the Loma people from the early 1950s. How is the Indianapolis Museum of Art able to trust their visitors not to cause any damage in the Eiteljorg Gallery of African art since many of the objects are presented out in the open? By exploring several of these objects that are presented out in the open and also protected by cases, one can understand better how visitors react to this setup and also see that it is a good idea to present this art in its natural context so one can get a more real understanding of what this art is like in everyday life.

African art is known as a “living art.” The objects in this gallery are presented out in the open, not hidden by any type of glass or in any case, so the visitor is easily able to view the objects. This is the design of Harrison Eiteljorg, who the gallery is named after. In 1989 he donated over 1,200 pieces of African art to the IMA’s collection. Since African art is known as a living art, Eiteljorg wanted the collection to be as accessible to the visitor as possible. Art objects are used in religious rituals, a wooden figure can be used for an appeal to an ancestor in social ceremonies, personal adornment in hairstyles and jewelry and also used in household settings such as a decorated bowl. The objects that are presented in this gallery must be appreciated not only for their important functions, but also for their beauty. There are three major topics that are included throughout the gallery. The first is the great diversity of lifestyles of African peoples and their arts. The second are the cultural and historic connections among different regions and peoples of Africa. The third is a change as a part of Africa’s past, present and future. Different identities were portrayed through the museum displays by the way the artifacts each were presented with what area of Africa they came from. This gives the visitor a sense of the area these people are from, as well as an understanding of what these people are like identity wise through blurbs that are written about the people and stories that are portrayed on the object’s labels.

The book, Collecting the New: Museums and Contemporary Art, edited by Bruce Altshuler, discusses contemporary African art in the article, The Unconscious Museum by Pamela McClusky, stating that “What has come into the museum mixes decidedly contrasting views of contemporary art, as seen in the selections cited from Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. A conceptual seesaw is in motion, with one end being artists who are a part of the art world circuit and the other, those who are not. Curating in what some might call the cybercapital of the world, there has been an effort to pay attention to a gap in the global network. There are still a multitude of places in Africa where an artist can spend a lifetime without logging on or being selected for a Biennale. Awareness of their existence might never find its way into a museum without extended personal contact through alliances…” (McClusky, 127) It is important for visitors to remember that there are so many places in Africa that a museum can only try its best to demonstrate the ethnic wealth that thrives in this immense country, yet at the same time keep an open mind to the different values and views of this culture. This is done incredibly well at the IMA because it portrays lifestyle and cultural and historic significance.

Having the objects within inches of being able to be touched caused the IMA to install a motion detector system.1 The motion detectors are over the display platforms and an alarm will go off if a visitor leans over the edges of the display platforms, but how is the museum honestly able to be able to trust their visitors? It is important to take into account the different factors that cause the museum to wish for this accessibility to the visitor and determine whether this really is a safe way to present an object.

The gallery was visited several times to gather information about how visitors were reacting to the fact that many of these objects were out in the open and it appeared as if the motion detectors really didn’t stop people from continuing to touch the objects. People leaned over the display platforms to take better pictures and people reached towards objects pointing at something they happened to find interesting. When the alarm went off, they seemed immune to it and didn’t even really flinch or react, except to step back a bit from the platform after the alarm had been sounding for some time. Depending on how busy the gallery was, depended on how many security guards were in the gallery, ranging from only one standing back at the entrance of the gallery to three patrolling the gallery watching visitors. It was interesting that there wasn’t a higher security presence in the gallery because whenever the motion detector went off security is immediately notified that people are over stepping their presence in the gallery. In one period the alarm went off about ten times within a five minute period due to a large family group that was busy snapping photographs of every object in sight, continuing to be immune to the alarms sounding. One would assume that there is some sort of plan on what to do if a visitor or visitors continuously violate the objects by setting off the motion detector alarm. In fact there should be a plan, such as the first time the visitor is warned that they need to be careful and make sure not to lean too close to the objects or touch them. If the person continues to violate this and continues to set the motion detector alarms off they should be escorted from the gallery, or under extreme circumstances, escorted from the museum.

One of the objects in this gallery is the helmet mask (Landai) for Poro association.2 It is made from wood, feathers, fiber and other materials and is presented on a plaster mount on one of the side ends of a display platform and comes from Western Africa. Next to the mask, on the wall, is a picture of the actual helmet mask being used in a ceremony. This mask is worn during initiation activities of the men’s Poro association where the masquerader escorts the boys into the initiation school in the bush and also announces their return to the village. It was noticed that this area of the gallery is much more warm then other areas of the gallery. Western Africa is known to be a semi arid terrain, which sits between parts of the Sahara desert and the forests of the western Sudan. Curiosity arose wondering if these objects have any type of humidity regulation to make sure that they aren’t overly cold or overly warm. One would want to monitor objects such as this helmet mask that are made from natural materials to make sure that the materials don’t simply self destruct over time or that no type of infestation takes place as well.

Leonard Bibeau has been a security guard at the IMA for over eleven years now. He noted that the different parts of the gallery are different temperatures in fact, but there are humidistats in the different galleries that help regulate temperature and humidity. He also noted how a lot of the lights in the African gallery have a type of filter over them so they are not directly shining down onto the objects. 3 Many are turned at angles so the light doesn’t damage the object by bearing down on it and the filter can regulate the light flow leaving the light. It was easy to assume that the warmer parts of the gallery were actually due to the fact that these were the more arid desert areas and the cooler parts of the gallery were forest related. It is very important to regulate these objects that are made from natural fibers and most likely were presented at one point or another in an outdoor setting, which they obviously were cleaned when they were accessioned into the museum’s collection, but it is possible for there to be different types of insect infestation that sometimes take place inside of the museum. When asked how the natural materials are able to not become infested, Bibeau said that there is a team that checks the objects made from natural materials on a regular basis to make sure no type of infestation is taking place and that the objects remain intact.

The gallery has a very natural feeling to it as if these objects are still living in their natural context from the hardwood floors all the way to the colors of the walls. The walls in the gallery are painted different colors depending on the region of Africa the art is from. In the forest/savanna area the walls are painted an olive green color. In the desert areas the walls are more of an orange and finally in the south pacific areas the walls range from more of a tan to khaki color. The objects that are suspended on the wall have a piece of plaster that usually is mounted to hold the piece, such as several plates that are suspended from the wall. 4 In multiple cases the object also has a photomural next to it, which portrays the object being used so the visitor is able to learn more about the object in its natural context whether it is used in some type of ceremony or simply for everyday use. This also brings the visitor into a closer relationship with the object. Not only are they inches away from being able to touch it in its full entirety, they are also able to gain that personal feeling towards the object. If the object had a smell, they would be able smell it and better understand it that way. Many people have trouble appreciating art from other cultures besides those that they are used to, so this gives visitors a good sense of something they may not be that used to.

Paul Stroller discusses the economic and social forces of globalization that have altered African art in his article “Circuits of African Art/ Paths of Wood: Exploring an Anthropological Trail”. He discusses how many historical and philosophical forces have shaped the space of African art and how much the history and culture of Western art has affected the perception and commerce in African sculpture, masks and textiles. “There is a vast and varied literature on the social and economic impact of globalization. Several analysts argue that globalization has fundamentally altered the nature of cultural processes, political dynamics and social interaction.” (Stroller, 209) This is important to take into context when thinking about how people interact in the African art gallery such as if people are understanding that this art whether they view it as African or not. It is great to look into the context of how people are seeing the art. Again, since this art is a lot more personable and approachable due to it being presented in the open and not being presented behind glass, it can be highly objectified.

“The Hegelian take on art compels the tasteful observer to focus on the object rather than on the social and economic considerations that led to its production--- art for art’s sake. Despite long-standing debates and challenges to the problem and ideal of art’s autonomy in the West, for many people engaged with the arts the category of ‘art’ remains a resolutely commonsense one, associated with essential value in the relation to a generalized human capacity for spirituality and creativity.” (Stroller, 211) Art should cause a person to be able to give the viewer knowledge to the extent that it changes what the viewer looks at in reality. “In West African religions crossroads are place stepped in religious significance…The crossroads is a metaphor that captures the complex dynamics of contemporary social worlds. The various economic, technological, social and political forces that define contemporary globalization have compressed, among other things, time and space.” (Stroller 221-222) “Separated by oceans of geographic distance and words of cultural differences, African traders and Western consumers are brought together in a fleeting moment of economic exchange. From this brief transaction, buyers and sellers leave with vastly different impressions of their encounter. The buyers, on the one hand, depart with artifacts of seemingly remote and distant cultures that will become integrated into a world of meaning and value comprehensible only through Western eyes. The sellers, on the other hand, walk away with renewed impressions of Western tastes and desires that will become part of their store of knowledge of how tourists and collectors perceive Africa and its art.” (Stroller, 222) The idea of the art actually getting to the gallery is something that visitors probably really never think about. It is important to remember that people somewhere in the world created these items and that they have a very important cultural significance for that culture.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is forced to have to trust their visitors not to cause any damage in the Eiteljorg Gallery of African art since many of the objects are presented out in the open. By exploring objects that are presented out in the open, visitors are able to place these objects in more of a natural context so they receive a more real life understanding of what these items are like on a regular day to day basis. These objects in this gallery present the visitor with religious, social and political information of a particular tradition in a certain society. It would be important in the future to try and understand why people don’t seem to comprehend that there are motion detectors that go off when the visitor gets too close to the art; also that these motion detectors are installed for a reason--- to keep the items safe. Possibly by placing the signs explaining the motion detectors somewhere other than right on the wall where people most likely won’t read it may help in the future, but actually install some sort of sign that people will be at least forced to look at when they enter the gallery. By following the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s mission to promote art to the public and interest people in art by looking at it in different ways through history, display and geographic backgrounds we are able to learn more about Africa as a country in general especially due to the Eiteljorg’s African Art Gallery, which easily demonstrates the whole of the continent in the five different divisions that are presented for the visitors to this gallery of Northern, Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Africa. By creating a unity of the country and embracing the normality of this art, the visitor is able to have more of a personal experience. As long as visitors continue to respect the art for its history and beauty, the objects deserve to be displayed in this open setting continuing the ability for the objects to be appreciated to the best of their ability in this natural setting, proving the Eiteljorg Gallery of African Art is doing a good job in the set up of their objects in an open, natural context when presenting them to the public and their visitors.


Works Cited

Altshuler, Bruce and McClusky, Pamela. “The Unconscious Museum: Collecting Contemporary African Art without Knowing It.” Collecting the New: Museums and Contemporary Art. Princeton University Press: 2007. Pages 115-129.

Stoller, Paul. “Circuits of African Art / Paths of Wood: Exploring an Anthropological Trail.” Anthropological Quarterly. Volume 76 No. 2. The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research: Spring 2003. Pages 207-234.



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