Chatham News

Student-curated exhibit of West African art opens March 18 at Chatham University Art Gallery

By: Paul A. Kovach, Vice President for Public and Community Relations
March 17, 2010

PITTSBURGH (March 17, 2010) … In celebration of its Global Focus Year of West Africa, Chatham University undergraduate students selected artifacts from the University’s extensive Olkes Collection of African Art to curate Mother, Maker, Model: Women in West African Art at the Chatham University Art Gallery from March 18-April 8, 2010. The opening reception will be Thursday, March 18 from 4:00-6:00 p.m.

The Chatham University Art Gallery, located in Woodland Hall on the Quad, is free and open to the public. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and on weekends by appointment. For gallery information call 412-365-1106. Directions and campus parking locations are available at

The works in the exhibition were selected, researched, and installed by the students of ART 378: Curating the Visual Arts, part of Chatham’s Art Museum Studies minor program, directed by Dr. Elisabeth Roark, Associate Professor of Art. The Olkes Collection at Chatham University includes over 600 works of African art given to the University in 2001 by Dr. Cheryl Olkes, class of 1970. Dr. Olkes lived among the Songhay culture of Niger in the late 1970s and early 1980s. An avid collector and great admirer of African culture, she intended her gift to act as a study collection for Chatham students and as a vehicle for developing clearer perceptions of Africa’s artistic heritage.

“Since this is Chatham’s 140th anniversary year as one of the oldest undergraduate women’s colleges in the U.S., and also our Global Focus Year of Africa, I thought it would be important for the students to utilize the breadth and depth of the Olkes Collection to explore the roles women play in these West African nations,” Dr. Roark said.

“In many West African countries women hold special places in religion, ritual, social control, and politics, and are a predominant subject of artists who create works of art that function in these realms. “For example, images of women in West African art range from the large scale Gelede Society masks of the Yoruba, which honor the wisdom and power of post-menopausal women, to functional items carved with female figures, such as slingshots by the Baule.”

The Chatham minor in Art Museum Studies is the only university program of its kind in Pittsburgh. Dr. Roark began the semester-long class discussing the job description and theoretical and practical realities of a curator – a role, she says, that is often little understood, if at all, by the general public. “The word itself is derived from the Latin “to care” or “caretaker.” Depending upon the size of an organization and its collection, a curator’s role could include a variety of tasks including acquisition, installation, research and education, and could serve as a generalist or specialist,” she says. The students also examined the theory of curating African works, which are often displayed from a historical, cultural or thematic context.

Dr. Roark assigned the students to seven genres, and the students then selected works based upon that particular theme, designed the installations and drafted the works’ labels. Students were responsible for researching each theme and art object to help place it in context for the viewer. The genres included:

The Ideal Woman – Curated by Katherine “Keight” Rafferty, Minneapolis, Minn. and Melissa Conte, Bethlehem, Pa.
Women of Power – Curated by Alexandra “Lexi” Ribar, Waynesburg, Pa.
Motherhood and Fertility – Curated by Sarah Renninger, Farmington, Pa. and Lisa Maness, Moon Township, Pa.
Men as Women – Curated by Leanne Horgan, Pittsburgh
Women and Worship – Curated by Rachael Moynihan, Martins Ferry, Ohio
Women and Transitions – Curated by Hannah Debo, New Brighton, Pa.
Women and Functional Objects – Curated by Elizabeth “Lizz” Wilkinson, Chelsea, Mich.

“Some African cultures are matriarchal, and so the role of the woman as mother and caregiver is emphasized,” Dr. Roark explains. “In some of these cultures, men will often don headdresses and costumes that represent women, while in others women will hold places of power.”

This is the fourth exhibition of artifacts from the Olkes Collection curated by Chatham undergraduates. Dr. Roark sees the collection as both a significant body of work and a tool for students to learn about art and African culture.

“What’s exciting about this exhibition is that my students can see how other cultures – including those that some consider ‘primitive’ – elevate women to a higher degree than men,” Dr. Roark says. “As these students learn what it means to become an adult woman in modern society, they also learn to challenge their own perceptions of womanhood.”

About the Global Focus Program
Chatham’s Global Focus program engages students in the purposeful study of peoples and civilizations. The University’s community of scholars promotes the acquisition of sustainable global competencies through the critical and holistic exploration of one specific country or region of the globe every year.

About Chatham
Chatham University prepares students from around the world to develop solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. Every Chatham student – women in Chatham’s historic women’s residential college, and men and women in Chatham’s graduate programs – receives a highly individualized, experiential educational experience that is informed by Chatham’s strong institutional commitment to globalism, the environment and citizen leadership. Founded in 1869, Chatham University includes the Shadyside Campus, with Chatham Eastside and the historic 39-acre Woodland Road arboretum; and the 388-acre Eden Hall Farm Campus north of Pittsburgh. For more information call 800-837-1290 or visit