‘Traces’ follows African mask along 10,000 mile journey
The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) presents “Traces: Reconstructing the History of a Chokwe Mask,” focusing on one African artwork from the Museum’s collection Oct. 22, 2016–Jan. 22, 2017.
The exhibition sketches the mask’s life story—from the moment it was created in what we now know as Angola, to its arrival in Ann Arbor. The mask’s biography encompasses three continents, more than 100 years and dozens of prominent individuals.
In its original context, the wooden mask was one small part of an elaborate costume and performance. Most likely carved near the end of the nineteenth century, it represents a woman (pwo in the Chokwe language). This type of mask was found in many neighboring communities across Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, including those of the Chokwe, Lunda, Luvale/Lwena, Luchazi and Mbunda peoples.
“African artworks that are on display in the U.S. have, by definition, experienced a long journey before arriving here,” said Laura De Becker, UMMA’s Helmut and Candis Stern associate curator of African art. “What makes this particular mask unique is that we have been able to trace a significant part of its journey, including the names of the precise people who were involved—who held, traded, made and cherished this exquisite mask.”
UMMA’s mask was taken from its original context in 1905 by Leo Frobenius (1873–1938), a German explorer who visited the Chokwe region during a two-year expedition into Central Africa. Frobenius returned to Germany with 8,000 objects, which he sold to museums and dealers in order to fund his subsequent Africa expeditions.
The mask was then acquired by the well-known German dealer J.F.G. Umlauff, whose shop in Hamburg provided many European and American museums with their early collections of African art. At the time, African art was underrated in the field of art history and Umlauff was a visionary in recognizing the value of these pieces.
From Hamburg, through the hands of the Belgian dealer Marc Leo Felix, the mask was sold to Helmut Stern, the businessman and philanthropist based in Ann Arbor. A passionate art collector, Helmut and his wife Candis Stern compiled an exquisite collection of Central African art, which they donated to UMMA in 2005, alongside an endowed curatorship of African art.
“The age, quality and provenance of this work truly make it a highlight of our collection,” De Becker said. “It is rare to find a mask that is this well-preserved and this well-documented. Especially its red color, which was achieved through the application of camwood powder, is still very vibrant for a piece that is over 100 years old.”
Its past travels speak to histories of trade and interaction, but also of colonialism and oppression. Through a selection of related artworks, photographs and historical documents, the exhibition traces the biography of the mask and by doing so seeks to acknowledge the layers of meaning that potentially accompany every piece in the museum’s collection, and its African artworks in particular.
Lead support for the exhibition is provided by the James and Vivian Curtis Endowment. Additional support is provided by the U-M Center for the Education of Women’s Frances and Sydney Lewis Visiting Leaders Fund and African Studies Center.
This exhibition is free and open to the public during visiting hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; Noon-5 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.