Each textile, basket, sculpture or mask is displayed with care in the open rooms showcasing the collections of two University of Montana alumni who have long been enamored by a culture distant from their own.
The “Homage to Africa” exhibit is being displayed in the Montana Museum of Art and Culture until April 24; the Tony Hoyt collection in the Paxson gallery and the Molly Shepherd collection in the Meloy gallery. There will be a virtual tour of the exhibit on their website, Friday Feb. 5.
“In the case of Molly’s collection, it’s that kind of beautiful dance between utility and symbolism,” said Rafael Chacón, director of the MMAC and an art history professor at UM. “But really what holds it together is craftsmanship and a gorgeous sense of design.”
Shepherd’s exhibit showcases only a small amount of her total collection, which she’s been stockpiling for over 30 years. Her pieces come from all around the country, though she laments never having been to Africa herself.
She said she doesn’t know the origins of all of her pieces, which all at some point made their way across the Atlantic before she acquired them. She is conscious of and concerned by the complex history of Western colonialism, though she believes her art has likely been traded ethically by African people.
A central medium of her collection is textiles, like the square Kuba-Shoowa Prestige cloths and the long Kuba skirts. Most of the textiles, and baskets, too, are made from raffia palm that is crafted into a string and weaved into designs.
Her collection is also full of all sorts of other objects from belts to clubs to figurines. Her favorite is the maginga, which has cultural and spiritual significance among the Bwami society. Its raised arm likely represents a judge and serves as a reminder to obey societal rules. The wooden figure is dynamic with wormholes, a round body and head, and stout curved legs. Its face has a long nose and slits for eyes and X’s carved into its cheeks.
“You could spend a long time looking at that particular piece,” Shepherd said. “There’s a timelessness, kind of an ineffable quality to him that really appeals.”
Another of her favorites is the Bamana boli. The protector is cracked and abstract in its figure. The wooden structure and cotton-wrapped layers go through several baths of bodily fluids, plant extracts and mud to reach the powerful cracked hide, reminiscent of an elephant or bush cow.
“It has solidity and dignity,” Shepherd said. “You can feel the power kinda emanating from it.”
Chacón said bolis are central to his fascination with African art, after his work at the Art Institute of Chicago during his graduate school years. He’s also fascinated by utilitarian objects.
“Even the lowest object has a wonderful, beautiful, transcendent shape and it has that sense of aesthetic, integrity, design,” Chacón said of Shepherd’s collection. “I mean, here let me show you.”
Chacón held up two wooden vessels. One was wide at its base with a thin circular opening at its top and another had a more organic shape, with patterned holes.
“How do you get this so thin without breaking it? Without tearing it? I mean that’s craftsmanship,” Chacón said. “That can rival any of the world’s great artistic traditions.”
Chacón teaches an undergraduate course on African art at UM and for a while he would bring his students to see lender Tony Hoyt’s collection. There they picked a piece that fascinated them, studied it, took pictures and then later researched it and wrote a paper. This ongoing project helped inform a lot of the history and significance of the pieces from his collection displayed in the museum.
Hoyt’s collection is full of masks of varying sizes, facial expressions and colors. Some are brightly colored and intricate while others are the wood’s natural browns and simple.
“Tony’s collection has a slightly different angle to it,” Chacón said. “I mean, he loves the funky stuff. He loves the hair and the teeth and his stuff is really more about the symbolic, and it’s more about the kind of the performance side of Africa.”
Most of Hoyt’s collection came from his time in the Peace Corps from around 1967 to 1970. He was stationed in Liberia where he taught at a school during the day and purchased local art at night.
Hoyt’s mother was an artist and when he went to Liberia she was building a museum at Ithaca College, she wanted art from around the world and asked her son for help. She taught him to check the art’s authenticity.
He soon fell in love with the people of West Africa, with their food and celebrations and art. He purchased several pieces for himself.
Over time the Ithaca museum was sold, Hoyt and his mother bought some pieces back. Later, he inherited her collection, which he continued to add to.
He met a businessman, Doug Allard, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who also had vast art collections. Allard had a lot of West African art, which Hoyt bought off of him.
“I hope (visitors) get a new appreciation for the unbelievable artistic talent of Africa,” Hoyt said.
Shepherd hopes people will find an appreciation for the richness, diversity and craftsmanship of African art in the museum, which they might not otherwise experience in a country steeped in Western culture.
She hopes the dynamism is “going to appeal to people and allow them to recognize just how rich these cultures are,” Shepherd said.