Recently I went to the Dayton Art Institute (DAI) in order to explore the collection on African history and dive into the ethnic atmosphere of native peoples of the African continent. DAI ensured that every visitor would be overwhelmed by the culture of the respective region. I had a chance to review numerous artistic objects that included music instrument, ritual masks, and hunter’s tunics, etc.
The Dayton Art Institute provided me with a chance to enrich my knowledge on the fine arts, native peoples of Africa, and their culture and society through their thematic displays with pieces of traditional African art. If earlier I regarded all African territories as places of the third world and knew only basic facts about it, currently I could tell more about separate parts of the continent and peoples that live in them. African savannas and deserts of the Western Sudan, for example, originally were home to the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai Empires, and to the State of Kanem-Bornu, and now this region is a homeland to agricultural communities of native peoples that continue to follow the ancient worshiping practices of their ancestors.
Collection of the displayed objects included but was not limited to various ritual masks which were used for funeral rites, initiation ceremonies, and entertainment, etc., and sculptures used for cult purposes as they were believed to contain spirits and were created for fertility rites and divine ceremonies, etc. Western Sudan is home for different peoples for example, Wodaabe of Mali, the Tellem, the Bamana, and the Dogon, etc. all local peoples are skilled craftsmen, leather workers, blacksmiths, and ceramists, etc., and their professional knowledge is passed in a particular caste. Among the exhibited pieces for the region I was impressed by the Hunter’s tunic of the 20th century from the Bamana people of Mali. It is a prestigious element of clothing and is typically used for protection due to the verses from the Koran which were added as a source of individual reinforcement. The brightly colored antelope head puppet created by Bozo people of Mali caught my attention, as it was unconventional, and I did not at once grasp the fact that it could be used both for entertainment and rituals.
Another interesting zone was the Guinea Coast that represented peoples of Dan, Mende, and Guro, who still live as tribes with elders and authoritative hierarchy. The secret associations of these people typically deal with the art production and creation of masks for various rituals. Masks are used in the region for protection from both natural and supernatural powers, and artists who create them are respected individuals and they commit to the kingship of their people. Artworks of the Guinea Coast region usually include sculptures, masks, furniture, beaded crowns, and brass heads, etc. Among the most distinctive works was a monkey-like figure (Ngekre or Asri Koffi) from the Baule people of the Ivory Coast which symbolized a bush spirit and was supposed to raise sacred terror. Furthermore, they were used to exorcise evil spirits in case of drought, misfortunes, or illnesses, etc.
I found the Equatorial Forest region, and the territories of Eastern and Southern Africa quite catching, as their artistic objects offered a wide choice of masks, figures, musical instruments, headbands, bracelets, necklaces, figurative lids, elaborate chairs, dolls, and sculptures, etc. All of them were used for rituals and ceremonies, and were produced out of wood, brass, and other natural materials. Furthermore, Southern Africa is known for its mural paintings. Eastern Africa had a developed trade and thus big cities emerged there, attracting missioners and Christianity to the region. The most striking element for me was the Elephant mask costume of the Bamileke people of Cameroon. It was made for royalty or wealthy people with high social standing. Animalistic prints and elements of elephant and leopard are the symbols of royal authority.
To conclude, my DAI visit left only positive impression. This museum trip was very educational, and I learnt many new and astonishing facts about the history of Africa, its peoples and culture. I would gladly revisit the DAI to see the slit drum in a buffalo form and the elephant mask costume.