Student Research: Brogan Ross on the Harms Collection of African Art

This week’s post is excerpted from a research project undertaken by our Spring 2011 museum intern, Brogan Ross.  She takes us back to the Harms Collection of African Art, which she investigated with the help of Associate Curator Shawn Yuan.

The Harms Collection has many artifacts from the Bambara culture. The Bambara culture reigns in the Western and Southern parts of Mali.  In the 1700s, Muslim conquerers made their first appearance in this area of Africa.  It was not until the 1900s that the Bambara officially adopted the Muslim culture.  Today, over 70% of the Bambara have converted to Islam.  Yet, they have also kept their heritage traditions, and the majority still practice ancient rituals. Ancestral spirits and lineage play a large role in the Bambara culture.  For example, artists must be born into the role of artist.  They believe that spirits dictate how specific mask and other artifacts turn out.  Yet, they also believe that spirits live in all objects they encounter in everyday life.  Animals, plants and inanimate objects are all believed to have a spirit within them.  Therefore, imagery of these things appears in the art as a symbol of their heritage.

A chiwara from the Harms Collection; one of a pair, this is a representation of a male antelope.

The Bambara people depend on their own agriculture as their food source.  A lot of the art in the Harms Collection either is used in ceremonial dances for agriculture or has imagery that references agriculture. Another key theme in the art is fertility.  In fact, much of the agriculture imagery also is a representation of fertility, because of the fertility of the land.  Childbirth is important in these cultures, and is the women’s main role in society.  Animal imagery, as well as mother, child, and ancestral imagery are seen throughout the art.  Key animals seen are snakes, horses, armadillos, antelope and pangolin.

Here, the chiwara above is pictured alongside the female of the pair.

Aardvark, antelope and pangolin are often used in agriculture ceremony culture.  The aardvark and the pangolin are popular representation because of their ability to dig up the land.  This is similar the farmers role of tiling up the land therefore, these creatures are seen as cunning. The antelope serves a larger role in Bambara agriculture.  A mythical creature, which was a half antelope half human, was thought to be the first to teach the ancient society how to farm. Composite images of these animals are seen in the Harms chiwara collection.  These headdresses were used in agriculture ceremonies, because the animals represented different aspects of agriculture.

Brogan wrote the above as part of a longer research paper about the art of the major cultures represented in the Harms Collection. This research, undergone in preparation for the Harms’ gift, was Brogan’s curatorial internship project. Here’s what Brogan had to say about her internship experience:

I learned many new things during the Museum Internship class.  While I did learn a lot about the African art collection I was researching, I learned more about how museums work.  I discovered that a lot of preparation takes place before a museum will take a donor’s collection.  The museum must make sure the artifacts are genuine, and also must express how the collection will benefit the museum’s program.  The donor-museum relationship plays a strong role when getting new pieces for a museum: the museum staff must be knowledgeable about the subject, and be able to express the benefits of the collection to the donor.  I also learned what the harder aspects are of researching a culture and objects unknown to you.  This class will be very beneficial to me in the future.  I have learned how museums operate, my strengths and weaknesses in researching, and I have come up with new ideas for when I come across a project like this again.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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