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UM exhibits artwork from West African tribes


A couple of steps after the astronomy exhibit, a large horned mask greets visitors to the African Art exhibition at the University of Mississippi Museum.  

It is a N’Tomo horned mask from Mali, a landlocked country in the western part of Africa, and it was brought to hang in the museum by Richard K. Meyers, a longtime collector from Peoria, Ill.  

He obtained the pieces through auctions and expeditions to western Africa; most of the artwork are relics from native tribes. The collection consisted of works from the 19th to 20th century with dissimilar styles of the Dogon, Ibo and Yoruba tribes.  

He donated his prized artwork to the permanent collection of the museum in four separate gifts from the late 1970s to 2005. The collection was never exhibited until Oct. 25, 2011, under the guidance of Bill Griffin, who is now the full-time curator of Rowan Oak.

“I encourage everybody to come see it,” he said. “It’s a beautiful collection, and it’s original.”

Griffin said that Meyers specifically chose Ole Miss because it already had some pieces of African artwork, and he wanted to expand it. The museum was then endowed with unique pieces that cannot be found anywhere else, except perhaps in the hands of the native tribes in Western Africa. 

The N’Tomo horned mask, which greets museum visitors, is a vestige used in a ceremony called N’Tomo, performed by the Dogon and several other tribes in Mali. It is a six-stage initiation that involves ritualized death of youth, rebirth of adulthood and circumcision of young men.  

Following the mask are two large doors with hand-carved décor that relay local history to visiting travelers passing by. The first was used by a Senufo Healer from the Ivory Coast; the door shows the mystical powers of which the healer is capable. The second door exhibited was used by a wealthy farmer to store grain. The door is heavily decorated with sculptures and gilded carvings to exemplify farming, a highly regarded profession in Western Africa. 

Further along is a rare collection of plates and objects used in secretive divination rituals by the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. One bowl in the collection is believed to hold the unconsciousness, the consciousness, body, soul and the holy soul. Such a bowl is held sacred by the healers and villagers of the tribe. To have such an intimate relic displayed in the University Museum is rare.

“We have very private relics in there,” Emily Dean, museum program coordinator, said. “They are very rare, so it’s a good opportunity to see them in the exhibition. The museum has had them since the 1970s, but we didn’t put them on show until now.”

There are many more masks, especially those of the Ashanti Empire that represent mourning and beauty, along with statues that ensure material or marital success and fertility dolls that young women carry about to promote pregnancy. There are even rattles that females ranging from young girls to pregnant women carry about to bless beauty upon their future daughters.

The Ashanti were highly powerful and successful, exemplified in a collection of the scoops in the museum. The scoops were used to measure gold dust, which was the marketplace currency used by the Ashanti empire.

Toward the end of the exhibit is a strikingly modern sight: A folding chair. It is just that: A wooden folding chair with a large crocodile framed by storks fashioned on the back. Behind the chair are the last masks of the exhibition, all with eerie, carved smiles.

These masks are the Poro masks from Liberia. Poro is a secret, male-only society that encompasses the ongoing events of government and high society of Liberia. The masks displayed were used in secretive ancestral rituals for decades that are still unknown to outsiders nowadays.

The unique exhibition will be on display until March 10. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for students, faculty and Oxonians to observe rare and highly original artwork from the hands of the ethnic tribes of western Africa. 

The University Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.