FORMS AND MOTIFS IN AFRICAN ART: WORKS FROM THE AVERY RESEARCH CENTER’S JOHN R. DUPREE AFRICAN ART COLLECTION

 

Exhibition Open

February 25 through December 1, 2017

Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library

John R. Dupree began amassing his extensive African art collection in 1972 while living in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and working for the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). Dupree was a member of a small group of FAA employees sent to Zaire to assist with building and establishing a civil aviation program at the request of then-President Mobutu. Dupree’s living quarters in Kinshasa, the capital city, was close to a major open-air market that he frequented. He acquired African artifacts during the three years he was in Zaire.  The John R. Dupree Collection, housed at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, contains more than 150 items, the majority of them in ebony and mahogany. There are also remarkable pieces of ivory in the collection and brightly colored works on canvas that will be on view as a part of the exhibition.

 Forms and Motifs in African Art: Works from the John R. Dupree Collection gives visible evidence to Susan Vogel’s powerful observation made in her seminal work on the Baule culture of the Ivory Coast.  In her book, Beauty in the Eyes of the Baule: Aesthetics and Cultural Values, Vogel explains the importance of the head in Baule sculpture and statuary, writing, “The head is considered the seat of freedom and intelligence.” That same observation applies to many of the works in the Dupree Collection, granting they represent the art of ethnic groups from Central Africa: Bakuba, Luba, Luluwa , and Songye. Moreover, this collection artistically conveys the dynamism of African culture.

The works are characterized by intricate and exquisite abstract geometric designs and patterns. Modern Western art, produced by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Giacometti, owes much of its development to these very African designs, motifs, and patterns.  Thus, a number of prominent artists of the early twentieth century, particularly cubists and expressionists, drew inspiration from African art, especially African masks.

African art was quite appealing to the cubist and expressionist school of artists because it differed from the pervasive imitation of nature in Western art. Instead, African artists created art analogous to natural images. Their intent was to create an object, mask, or statuary that would embody the vital forces of nature to assist with a better understanding of the environment.

African art is perhaps best understood when the viewer appreciates the great scope for individual expression by the artist. The sophistication that marks one piece superior to another comes through the artist who has the freedom to create a work of stunning individuality while still working within the conventions required by tradition. Even when signs of uniqueness are quite evident, a work will still display the traditional motifs, representations, and references.  The work conveys its symbolism through the artist’s craftsmanship to the members of his ethnic group.  Thus, it is significant that the artist or craftsman is steeped in the customs and images of his society.  After all, the ultimate purpose for carving masks and statuary is to give real and tangible form to the spirit world as a means of channeling the universal creative force.

The sculpture, masks, and contemporary works on canvas in the Dupree Collection are replete with human and animal forms and motifs, some of which are depicted in naturalistic representations while others are almost abstract symbols. In addition, the sculptures and busts are characterized by high-domed foreheads, which are generally a sign of “an unmarred spirituality.” The works are further enhanced by elaborate coiffure, cowrie shells, some instances of scarification, and other forms of adornment. For example, within the collection are five wooden statues of various sizes that appear to be the work of the same artist and are all wearing a hat presumably made from raffia and silk. As another example, one of the most breathtaking pieces in the collection is a copy of an ndop, a figurative sculpture representing a Kuba king. This wooden sculpture shows the monarch with his legs crossed and enthroned on a rectangular stool. An embodiment of dignity, he is depicted in a frontal pose. The eyes in the disproportionate head are closed, perhaps signaling the king’s meditative state.  On his head, he wears a box-shaped royal cap accentuated with cowrie shells that projects over his forehead. He also has a sword in his hand and strings of cowrie shells adorn his stomach and upper arms.

The John R. Dupree Collection joins other holdings at the Avery Research Center that primarily highlight  African culture, including the collections of Catherine and James Yatsco, George Pope, Joseph A. Towles, Paul Craven, and Muriel and Marcus Zbar.  This exhibit is the first time the Dupree collection is presented for public viewing.

The Dupree Collection provides scholars and the general public an opportunity to study and marvel at the strength and beauty of African art and artifacts while acknowledging the creative genius and agency of Africans as it relates to artistic production.  Additionally, the collection significantly enhances Avery Research Center’s holdings in African artifacts and supports the Avery Research Center’s mission of preserving African American heritage and making it more accessible to the broader public.

John R. Dupree began to amass his extensive African Art collection in 1972 while living in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and working for the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). Dupree in concert with a small group of other employees of the FAA was in Zaire to assist with building and establishing a civil aviation program at the behest of President Mobutu. Dupree’s living quarters in Kinshasa, the capital city, was in close proximity to a major open air market which he frequented and acquired numerous works during the three years he was there. The John F. Dupree collection, housed at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, contains in excess of 150 items, the majority of them in wood – ebony, and mahogany. There are also some wonderful pieces of ivory in the collection, as well as brightly colored works on canvas that will be on view as a part of the exhibition.

The exhibition titled “Forms and Motifs in African Art:  Works from the John R. Dupree Collection gives visible evidence to the powerful observation Susan Vogel made in her seminal work on the Baule of the Ivory Coast. In her book titled, In Beauty in the Eyes of the Baule: Aesthetics and Cultural Values, Vogel made the following observation regarding the importance of the head in Baule sculpture and statuary, wherein she wrote, “the head is considered the seat of freedom and intelligence”.  That same observation is applicable to many of the works in the Dupree Collection, granted they represent the work of the following ethnic groups from Central Africa: Luba, Luluwa, and Songye.  Moreover, what is conveyed artistically in the works is the dynamism of African culture. The works are characterized by intricate and exquisite abstract geometric designs and patterns. African designs, motifs and patterns that were foundational to the development of what has been called modern western art, art produced by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Giacometti, among others.  Lastly, there is a fundamental statement being made through sculptural responses to the African environment, an environment wherein there is a social balance that is responsible for a certain kind of decorum, regardless of one’s gender.

Avery Research Center’s collection of African artifacts spans two centuries and originates from various African countries.  Joining the collections of Catherine and James Yatsco, Joseph ATowels, Paul Craven, and  Muriel and Marcus Zbar (to name a few), the John R. Dupree collection increases Avery’s value to scholars and artists studying African and Lowcountry retentions, wood/ebony/ivory carvings, rituals, and twentieth century artwork. The Dupree Collection broadens/enhances the liberal arts experience for students, which is invaluable as more and more students pursue study abroad opportunities while matriculating at the College of Charleston. It also affords scholars and the general public an opportunity to study and marvel at the strength and beauty of African art and artifacts while acknowledging the creative genius and agency of Africans, as it relates to artistic production.  Additionally, the collection significantly enhances Avery’s holdings in African artifacts in quantity—being well over 100 original pieces—and supports the Center’s mission of preserving African American heritage and making it accessible to the broader public.