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Students Curate Art Show in Downtown Pittsburgh

Frenetic drums mingle with downtown traffic. A dancer, raffia costume bouncing in rhythm, reels in the endless circle of a looping video. On her head is a helmet-like mask just like the ones displayed in the center of the room. But unlike many art gallery objects, these masks transcend the dusty stillness of museums. They are not inert— they are poised, as if waiting for their turn to dance.

For the first time, these and other objects from Chatham’s collection of Sub-Saharan African art are taking a trip off campus to appear in “The Dynamics of Gender: African Art from Chatham University,” held in Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center. This student-curated show presents African art objects donated to the university from alumna Cheryl Olkes ‘70, as well as pieces on loan from alumna Vivian Lowery Derryck, ’67, and a gift from Richard and Marilyn Finberg.

“Both Vivian and Cheryl recognize the value to a small school like Chatham—one with lively arts and museum studies programs—of students having direct access to art objects from different cultures,” says Associate Professor Dr. Elisabeth Roark. “At most institutions, undergraduate students rarely get to handle, research, and display actual works of art.”

Elizabeth Grace Carr ‘18, one of the student curators, agrees. “One of the reasons that I came to Chatham is because of the Olkes Collection and wonderful museum studies program. The ability for students to put on gloves and interact with museum-quality objects is not something that every museum studies program offers.”

Indeed, the students who curated this exhibition as part of their senior Capstone Project had a hand in almost every facet of the show. Seniors Raven Elder, Elizabeth Grace Carr, Abigail Bennett, and Jennifer Panza spent a semester focusing on individual research papers. Then came meetings, presentations, discussions. The students took great pains to consider their roles as curators and the assumptions and privileges they might bring to the show.

“We have to ask ourselves how to properly engage with cultural heritage that is entwined with colonial history, and how we can best avoid replicating past problems of prioritizing colonial narratives of Africa,” writes Raven Elder ‘18 in her capstone presentation. “The history of how African objects ended up in American and European art museums is undeniably complicated and problematic, and cannot be divorced from the history of colonialism and the division of Africa among European powers.”

From left to right: Student curator Raven Elder, Dr. Elisabeth Roark, student curator Liz Carr, and student curator Jennifer Panza (not pictured: student curator Abigail Bennett)

The spacious gallery was something of a double-edged sword. Dr. Roark and the students worried the art would get lost in the space, about four times the size of Chatham’s Woodland Hall Gallery and with much higher ceilings. Another issue was the safety of the objects themselves. Being made of vulnerable materials like raffia, fabric, and wood, the objects needed to be protected by specially-designed Plexiglas vitrines, or museum cases.

Jennifer Panza ’18 was able to use her expertise gained in her family’s framing and gallery business to create these vitrines from scratch.

“Though my father, his assistant, and I built, packed, and delivered the cases, all of us students designed the custom cases together,” says Panza, noting that the experience was tough but rewarding. “I built relationships, friendships, and memories. I learned so much. I will most definitely use this experience in future projects.”

It’s a strange thing to spend so much time on something you hope people ultimately won’t notice. Once inside the center, the vitrines melt away. Though the gallery is spacious and airy, the feeling of intimacy is overwhelming as one contemplates, for example, an Akua Ba, an Asante fertility figure primarily used by women hoping to conceive a baby.

The emotions expressed here—from desiring a child to honoring ancestors and beyond—are universal, timeless. The art is not, however, ancient. “Most pieces are from the 20th century, as is typical for African art since so much of it is made of ephemeral materials,” says Dr. Roark. “The art is traditional, in that it was created by traditional cultures, although these cultures continue to evolve and modernize.”

Nevertheless, these objects seem eternal in a way that Western 20th century artifacts might not, perhaps because of their particular lineage.

From culture to alumni collector, from collector to student curators, and from curators to the community—these objects have travelled an extraordinary path to sit where they are now, viewed by denizens of Pittsburgh, many of whom have ancestries as touched by colonialism as the art pieces and cultures themselves.

One of the most common misconceptions about African art—and Africa in general—is that the culture and people the art represents is monolithic. One only has to look around the gallery space to know that this is untrue. Each group has its own aesthetic sensibility and cultural ideals it seeks to express, and objects range from ceremonial to practical: Fertility icons share space with hair combs, wooden dolls, and giant spoons used as hostess gifts.

One four-legged stool is striking in its simplicity, low to the ground and unadorned. Stools like these were used by women to provide a sturdy seat during domestic chores. The intention behind that extra leg, the deferential thoughtfulness given to women whose lives were often defined almost in total by their role as caretakers, is powerful.

Meanwhile in the Lobi culture, the men have stools with only three legs, two in the back and one in the front, a not-so-subtle reference to the “third leg” of male genitalia. For some contemporary viewers, the patriarchal overtones to these and other objects could be overwhelming. Take the Spirit Maiden mask of the Ibo people, which denotes the downcast eyes of the ideal woman. But it’s important not to drape contemporary expectations onto these objects, says Elder. “A lot of our early conversations were surrounding issues of interpretation and contextualization. How could we most appropriately analyze these objects through the lens of gender without forcing the works into a preconceived narrative or framework?”

And indeed, while the very title of the show includes the phrase “dynamics of gender,” objects are presented free from curatorial judgement—in fact, many of the students and Dr. Roark cite the Spirit Maiden mask as their favorite, full of artistry and grace, remarkably light for its size.

It faces off—conceptually and physically—with a large Gelede mask. Though this mask was worn exclusively by men, they did so in a dance that honored high-ranking females in Gelede society—ancestral, supernatural, and living. The mask’s expression is serene, her forehead high and noble. Her eyes are wide open.