Today I want to share a few photos — and my thoughts — from the current exhibition on display at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in St. Joseph. Some of you may be aware that my sister lives in St. Joseph. I try to drive up to visit her at least three or four times a month.
Along with a few friends, she recently visited the museum, and she was quite impressed by the current collection. She insisted that on my next trip to St. Joseph, we should go so that I could see the exhibit, too.
The title of the exhibit is “Collecting in America: The Sabates African Art Collection”. Dr. Roland Sabates is an ophthalmologist in the Kansas City area, and founder of the Sabates Eye Centers. He visited Africa to do medical work there and became interested in the tribal masks, headdresses, and other items he saw. Since that first trip, he has re-visited the continent several times and has amassed a fascinating collection of African art.
Many pieces in the collection — such as the ones above — are covered in beads and shells. I wondered how long must it take to complete something like this. I wondered, too, how many workers were involved in creating these complex designs. Most of all, I found myself wondering about the meaning and symbolism contained in art objects like these.
There were lots of bright colors. Objects were made from fabric, wood, bronze, feathers, and other materials. Here are a few of the photos I took:
The items that most drew my attention were smaller ones, nestled together in one corner of a room.
I wish you could see these statues up close. For me, part of the fascination came from the mouths. On some, you can see what appear to be teeth; on others, the teeth appear to be fangs. Some had hands over the mouth or in the mouth, and many of these statues had nails sticking out of the mouths. Of course I wondered why.
If you look closely at the picture, you’ll also see lots of nails sticking out of different body parts, and I puzzled over this. Were the nails used simply because they were handy? Were these statues the result of artisans grabbing whatever materials were available and using them? Or was there a deeper meaning? I don’t know the answer to that question. I’ve looked online a bit, but I haven’t found any information, and I really can’t afford to buy the book Dr. Sabates has put together about his collection.
One thing was very clear to me. Each of these statues was an expression of an individual voice. I couldn’t understand what the voices were saying because I’m not familiar with the culture, but I could still see the expressiveness within each object.
To be honest, I don’t find these objects beautiful in the traditional sense. They are intriguing. They are fascinating. They are interesting. And above all, they are expressive. This was when I began to realize that what we perceive as art isn’t necessarily created to be something beautiful. Art is created to have meaning to its creator. Art is created as a means of expressing … something.
With these statues and masks and other objects, that something might have been fertility, war, strength, tribal unity, motherhood, or healing. These objects speak a language I don’t know, and yet, speak they do. Eloquently. Powerfully. I understood that each has a meaning.
These realizations about the expressiveness of art gave me pause. In my own experience with creating art, I have focused on beauty more than meaning. I have been too caught up in creating an acceptable likeness of an object or a scene that I’ve shut out almost any genuine personal expression. I have silenced my own voice by trying to find where I fit in with the art world, not realizing that my voice is where I fit in.
I am who I am as an artist. My work might not be beautiful. My work might not represent a particular style. I might use garish colors at times, and my proportions might often be wonky. But this is the art I create. This is my way of expressing — however imperfectly — my view of the world.
Seeing art in this way stirs my excitement, frees my imagination, and inspires me to do what artists do — to create works that are uniquely my own. It feels good to know that I don’t have to copy others or compare myself to others. As an artist, it’s enough to simply be and do, and to create works that show the world who I am.