The Peabody exhibition

Early ethnographers of Sierra Leone and Liberia describe Poro but are somewhat dismissive of Sande in terms of its social impact. Recently that focus has reversed, and Sande has been held up as an association of social consequence. The Peabody exhibition points out several noteworthy and not altogether common facts about Poro and its masks, and relates them to Sande. One of its strongest intellectual contributions is this balanced presentation of the gender-based societies, revealing the counterpoint and harmony that exist between them. One particularly interesting and very clear indication of the tale not told or only implied is a mask that derives from a Yoruba (Dahomean/Nigerian) presence in Freetown. The exhibition is full of teases like this–treats that appear as one gives oneself over to the objects and to information that is rich but not always easily accessible in an abridged version of the story.

Two concerns arise from the abbreviated state of the exhibition. First, there is no catalogue. Second, the information is new to many visitors, and it is presented in great detail, perhaps too much to be contained in or absorbed from densely printed text panels aligned with field photos. Again, the visual impact of the explanatory material is well integrated, but the content is obscured by that same presentation and integration. Similarly, one must stretch to make the broader connections between the object and, first, the origins of the Africans aboard the Amistad and, second, the contemporary struggles in Sierra Leone. While the former is a more obvious effort, at least by virtue of the title of the exhibition, it does not seem to provide much more than what the observer already knows.

What the Amistad voyagers sought, valued in the views and behaviors of others, and described themselves draws heavily upon a sensibility that would have derived from socialization and training in the Poro or Sande society. But even if it is not at a great level of detail or in strong relief, the presentation of a traditional or of a predating sociocultural underpinning for the men and women of the Amistad and their kinspeople is available to the careful observer of the exhibition. A potential depth of interpretation exists in this rich corpus of material, and for the trained viewer it is a testament to a strong belief in and demonstration of ethnography as practiced and espoused by those who still hold that humans and their ways can be observed, described, and understood by others.

One can only imagine the fertile field for future cultivation when space, a catalogue, and a wider representation of objects can be assembled. It would be in that context that current travail on the west Atlantic coast of Africa might be best inspected for connections and even solutions in the past and in social mechanisms of the peoples of west Africa that have persisted into the present. I applaud the Peabody Museum for searching for the connections between the voyagers of the Amistad and their beginnings and for the awareness that this informs our lives today, even beyond Connecticut and the west coast of Africa. But at the same time, I hear the call for more–a wider context for the information already here, and an expansion of that information to fully focus on and to continue to refine our understanding of the cultures of west Africa through their arts and social organizations. It is encouraging to see the possibility of a true blending of social history, art history, and ethnography, not as academic disciplines but as complementary lights in a well-polished jewel the gem of human experience in both crisis and in everyday life. Where better to have started than in Connecticut and at the Peabody, and where better to continue than on the foundations offered by this exhibition?