The Harms Collection of African Art: Graduate Students Catalogue the Collection

This week’s post is written by Krystle Brewer and Mary Kathryn Moeller, the OSUMA’s Graduate Research Assistants. Krystle and Mary Kathryn have been working with the permanent collection in anticipation of our move to the Postal Plaza Gallery (and the opening exhibition of highlights from the Permanent Collection).

Over the last couple of weeks we have been exploring the expansive 2011 donation of African art from Mattie and Larry Harms. Larry, an OSU graduate, was a part of the first Peace Corps cohort, which sent him to Guinea and later to Niger where he met his wife, Mattie. Their experiences of and love for the art and material culture of Africa, specifically from the Bamana and Dogon people of Mali, is what led them to begin the collection which would eventually include hundreds of objects. These objects range from ceremonial masks to functional household items to textiles. The donation of this collection was the first major donation to the OSU Museum of Art and is still the largest single donation the museum has received to date.

Yoruba (Nigeria), Ibeji figure, 20th century. Wood and pigment, gift of Larry and Mattie Harms. 2011.001.024.

Now that the museum has received the objects, we have been working on cataloging them. This process includes measuring, photographing, assessing, tagging, and entering them into the database. It has been an incredible opportunity to work so closely with these objects. Some of the masks and headdresses are intricately and delicately fabricated using shells, beads, metal plates, and even real hair to add to their decorative and symbolic quality. It is amazing to think about the people who crafted them, used them, and cherished them for their aesthetic and cultural value. We have been able to learn volumes about the Bamana and Dogon people through their objects and our supporting research.

Yoruba (Nigeria), Ibeji figure, 20th century. Wood, pigment and beads, gift of Larry and Mattie Harms. 2011.001.055.

Of the many sculptural pieces in the collection, one of the highlights was working with the two Yoruba Ere Ibeji dolls from Nigeria. These small figures are representative of the worship of the cult of twins in the Yoruba community, which has one of the highest birthrates of twins in the world (about 45 out of every 1000 births). The birth of twins is treated as a great omen and the children are accorded the status of minor deities. In the event that one or both of the twins died, these dolls were made to represent the spirit of the deceased. The dolls are dressed, fed, and cared for as a way to appease the deceased spirit and ward off evil.

Dogon (Mali), Ancestor figures, 20th century. Wood, gift of Larry and Mattie Harms. 2011.001.069.

The Dogon primordial couple is another great feature of the Harms collection. This pair of ancestors is thought to be representative of the mythological founding of the Dogon people. The figures sit on a stool representing the sky while their feet rest on a base or the earth. The male places his arm protectively around the female and gestures to his genitals as a sign of his virility. His partner carries an infant on her back and thus, as a group, they also represent the Dogon nuclear family.

As our researching and cataloging continues we are excited to learn more about the Harms’ donated collection and its role within the permanent collection.

You can read more about the Harms Collection, which was exhibited in the Gardiner Gallery in Fall 2011, in some of our past blog posts.

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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