THE AFRICAN ROOTS OF THE AMISTAD REBELLION Masks of the Sacred Bush The Peabody Museum of Natural History Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut July 15, 2000-December 31, 2001
“The African Roots of the Amistad Rebellion” exhibits forty pieces of art from the Mende and related peoples of Sierra Leone and surrounding areas, together with twenty contextual photographs and explanatory and identifying information. Its focus is the art and traditional life from which the African voyagers of the Amistad were taken and that they brought with them to Connecticut as they struggled for their freedom.
In June 1839, fifty-three Mende-speaking people were sold as slaves in Havana. They were taken on board the Amistad, and by the morning of the fourth day at sea, two of the Africans had freed and then armed themselves and their comrades. Under their control, the ship sailed north and east, eventually following the U.S. coastline and arriving off Long Island, where it was seized and taken to New London, Connecticut. After a long battle in the U.S. courts, the African prisoners, aided by local supporters, won their freedom. In November of 1841, the thirty-five surviving Africans and five missionaries set sail for Sierra Leone.
The journey of the Amistad is well documented, but its complexity is perhaps still to be understood. Recent commemoration of these events has stimulated a great deal of activity in the popular and scholarly cultures of the United States and particularly Connecticut. This effort by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History is an example. The notion of presenting a view of the cultural underpinnings that shaped and carried the personal and public lives of the Africans aboard the Amistad is compelling. As Michelle Gilbert, the exhibition’s guest curator, said at the opening: “This exhibit is about the role of memory and the importance of place. It is about how the past instructed the present. It is about how the rebellion of the young men and women on the Amistad was informed by their past in West Africa and where their ideas of identity, gender, and ethnicity were molded, and their ideas of how people are supposed to behave were formed.” It is not an overstatement to say that such ambition for a small exhibition quickly reaches the edge of the resources at hand. The efforts of the curators, Gilbert and the Peabody’s Frank Hole, the consultant, William Siegmann, and the designer, Ingvild Horn, were severely constrained by the space allotted. They were successful in harnessing a large idea, synthesizing a mountain of ethnographic data, selecting a group of superb objects, and installing those objects in a very modest gallery.
A museum of natural history is an effective setting for such an undertaking. The Peabody is a small, active museum where one finds parents, grandparents, and a raft of children viewing specimens and a modest collection of ethnographic material in cleverly built environments. It is an animated and welcoming space. The museum currently exhibits no Africana save these Amistad-related materials. The choice to present a serious corpus of African ethnography that predates and in part explains a piece of Connecticut history is venturesome, and intellectually the resulting exhibition is commendable.
The installation fills approximately one quarter to one third of the first of three ethnographic galleries just off the foyer of the museum. Looking past a half wall that sections off the gallery, one sees a magnificent nonwooden men’s Gbini mask that announces the exhibition. A major portion of the show describes Poro and Sande, the men’s and women’s societies, and their place at the center of traditional life. Opening with men’s society masks, the space is punctuated by a combination of didactic panels, photographs, and labels that explain the objects. The thumbnail photos, grouped in fours and located near didactic panels, are engaging and offer a truly animated view of daily life in Sierra Leone.
The panels are quite dense, presenting descriptions of both male and female associations and the actions and concerns of their members regarding socialization, gender, education, and authority. For students of Africa and particularly west African art, these notions are hardly new. However, this presentation is far more balanced than usual in terms of the two organizations, and it contains objects that are unique and more thoroughly documented than is the case in much of the literature, not to mention exhibitions.
The quality and variety of known and unknown objects assembled at the Peabody may be even more interesting than the attempt to interpret them. Anyone concerned with African history, non-Western art, masking, or personal adornment–even those without a tremendous familiarity with the work of the Mende and their neighbors–will be engaged by this selection. Wooden male masks are often erroneously associated with the women’s Sande society. This exhibition provides strong examples of the wooden Sande masks as well as the wooden and nonwooden masks of Poro and shows the differences among the three forms and their uses.
The first mask, Gbini, insulates Poro from the uninitiated (Fig. 2). And just a few steps away one becomes aware of helmet masks whose facial attachments relate to musicians’ regalia and whose iconography announces gender and instructs in the ways of Poro (Fig. 1). A costumed men’s helmet topped by a long-necked head, a mask type that appears widely in the region, is a Poro portrayal of feminine beauty that is quite distinct from Sande masks, though it is often labeled as such. At the opposite end of the long, narrow exhibition space are Sowei masks whose splendid quality quickly distinguishes them within a corpus that is often seen and reproduced. In the center of the space, along opposing walls, one finds female healing figures and items of personal adornment–particularly ivory and silver pendant jewelry worn by women returning from Sande initiation, ivory trumpets and snuff containers, and a bit of beaded apparel.