Sarah Rohleder —
The rustic, natural smell of wood and aged fibers overwhelmed me when I opened the doors of the Hite Institute Art Gallery. It housed a collection of 20th-century, tribal works from around central and western Africa. The pieces, primarily sculptures and textiles, commanded attention and status with their sharp expressions and rich colors.
The collection of 40 works first belonged, in its entirety, to Frederick and Margaret Merida, before they donated the collection to the University of Louisville in 2012, in honor of Hite Institute faculty member Dario Covi. Frederick Merida collected the pieces through under-the-table deals until he later established his own gallery, opening his market to more legitimized trade. Each piece’s history tells a story even more curious than that of its procurement.
Some pieces celebrated a shift from boyhood to manhood, in the form of alarming masks with precise and geometric details that represented the strength of the animals they portrayed. The men’s masks solicited fear through their sunken, hollow eyes and often jagged teeth. Other pieces praised women as givers of life through softer details and an emphasis on unrealistically large stomachs. An oversized pair of spoons reserved for feasts and harvest celebrations depicted a woman’s upper or lower half on the handle, which allowed the concave part of the spoon to act as the woman’s womb. The artists’ attention to the women as mothers did not minimize them to that role, it revered their ability to create and bear another human being, another soul, as these people so cherished.
Soul and spirit inspired, and even enveloped all of the artwork. Antelope horns adorned masks whose cultures deified the antelope as a principal creation on earth. Intricate patterns covered ritual cups and window shutters believed to prosper and protect their respective peoples. Artists pieced hundreds of ornately decorated textiles together into costumes dancers wore at masquerade festivals that facilitated connection with the gods, and glorified women’s spiritual power and wisdom. In many of these cultures, community members only allowed people of high spiritual significance to craft the pieces.
In spending time with each piece and examining the artists’ marks, the pieces came alive. The cultures these works represented appreciated the human or animal form and spirit. They trapped the motion of their creators’ lives and cultures, which remindeds the viewer: there were once faces under those masks, humans under those garments. The African Art Gallery captured a depth to these cultures that immortalized their spirit for life and for their people.