Atlantans had the opportunity from Jan. 18-April 21 to see a remarkable exhibition of African art at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, which featured works focused on the traditional lives of women and girls. The artworks were selected from hundreds of pieces belonging to the Mehta Collection of retired professor of international banking and finance at Georgia State University, Dileep Mehta and his wife Martha.
A recently published catalogue titled “Stories Without An End: Power, Beauty and Wisdom in African Art of the Mehta Collection” with introductions by Elizabeth H. Peterson, director of the museum, and Dr. Amanda H. Hellman, curator of African Art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University, is available at the museum.
Those who missed the exhibition but would like to see it will have the opportunity to do so at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, in Montgomery, Ala., where it will be on view from Nov. 9-Jan. 26, 2020.
What made the Oglethorpe exhibition so exceptional was not only the presence of 52 classically carved sculptures and masks representing art from more than 25 ethnic groups spanning 12 countries, but their juxtaposition to photographs by Tara Rice, a New York-based photographer whose work is related to education, gender equality, community service and environmental conservation.
Ms. Rice’s photographs are of grandmothers and young girls participating in the Grandmother Project, which was launched in the mid-1990s in West Africa and develops community approaches promoting positive and sustained improvements in the lives of girls, children, women and families by building on existing cultural values and community roles.
The presence of the photographs linked the traditional experiences of African women represented by the sculpture and masks with that of women currently living in African villages.
The Grandmother Project’s founder Judiann Aubel is a former Peace Corps volunteer and specialist in community development, health and education, with the mission of improving the health and well-being of women and children in developing countries. Although the program was launched in Senegal, it now has adherents elsewhere in Africa as well as Asia, Latin America and the Pacific.
At the core of the project is the recognition that grandmothers and elders in general play a central role in matters related to women and children in non-Western cultures. By harnessing their knowledge and natural leadership capacities, the project relies on them to influence positive change on issues such as early marriage, teen pregnancy, female genital mutilation and children’s education.
While the project overtly seeks to change certain traditional practices, it does so only in community settings with local input by engaging community members and challenging them to re-examine traditional ideas and to play a role in bettering maternal and child nutrition, reproductive health and marriage standards.
For the purposes of the exhibition, the artworks from the Mehta Collection were divided into six different themes: idealized, youthful beauty; the power of women in motherhood; fertility, nursing mothers and maternity; women in governance; the priests and receptacles of power and ancestors.
In the words of Dr. Hellman, who in a short essay at the beginning of the catalogue, says that “the exhibition is a celebration and a critical look at how different cultures across Africa visually express the ideas of womanhood in all of its complexities; their role in leadership — social, political, and spiritual; their role as carefakers; the mysteries and the obvious.”
The selection of a “Gelede mask” from the Yoruba people in Nigeria as the featured image of the exhibition underscored the celebration of “mothers,” a group that includes not only current elderly women of the community, but female ancestors and dieties.
Dr. Hellman also says in her essay that the Yoruba Gelede tradition in Southwest Nigeria, which dates back to the 18th century, honors “the spiritual power of women — in particular elderly women, lovingly called ‘our mothers,’ who based on their experience and wisdom, are elevated to a more influential status within the community.”
Dr. Hellman doesn’t mind reaching way back in tracing the roots of her theme, actually as far back as 1770s B.C. to the reign of Queen-Pharaoh Sobekneferu, the 8th and probably final ruler of the 12th Dynasty in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom.
In addition she gives credit to more modern examples of prominent African women who serve as role models for the continent’s emerging female leaders today including:
Liberia’s former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected head of state in Africa who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize n 2011 along with Leymah Gbowee, also of Liberia, and Tawakkoi Karman of Yemen for their contributions to the “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s right to full participation in peace-building work;”
Kenyan artist and filmmaker Wanui Kahiu; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer; and not least Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 who promoted the linkage between sustainable management of resources. Through her Green Belt Movement, she planted more than 30 million trees to rebuild Kenya’s ecosystems.
To learn more about the exhibit, Elizabeth Peterson may be reached by calling 404-364-8559 or sending an email to