Estranged Home: The Dissonance of Chatham University’s African Art Collection

Estranged Home: The Dissonance of Chatham University’s African Art Collection

by Chenoa Baker


It is no accident that this homeplace, as fragile and as transitional as it may be, a makeshift shed, a small bit of earth where one rests, is always subject to violation and destruction. For when a people no longer have the space to construct homeplace, we cannot build a meaningful community of resistance. — bell hooks



Two years after graduation, I still think about my college experience, especially an art collection that deeply impacted my inquiry into modern and contemporary art. When I attended Chatham University, a small liberal arts school in Pittsburgh, that used to be a women’s school but went all-gender a few years prior, I took classes like African-American Literature, Curating African Art, Oral Histories, Neighborhoods, and Race, and Black American Art History (an independent study). All of these classes ignited more curiosity about the literature, culture, and art of the African Diaspora, which I am proud to be a part of. One of the resources that I took full advantage of was the Cheryl Olkes Collection of African Art from the 18th-20th century held in the Susan Bergman Gurrentz '56 Gallery.


Cheryl Olkes, a Chatham University alumna of the class of ‘70, gifted her private collection of 600 African belongings post-posthumously to Chatham University in 1998. In the 1980s, Olkes collected art from research trips to Mali for her book, Sorcery’s Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship Among the Songhay of Niger, co-authored with her ex-husband, Dr. Paul Stroller. Sorcery’s Shadow details their experiences. From that initial trip and others, the Olkes Collection emerged. Part of the collection is at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, and the remainder is an educational collection for students in Art History, Museum Studies, and Studio Art programs at Chatham. 


While the exact story of how they acquired all of these belongings is unclear, colonial anthropological and cultural research is what brought them here. Art appraisers and divination experts recognize the collection’s strong examples of Western and Central African art, although it is contained in a room in Woodland, which has classrooms and a cafe on the first level and dorm rooms above. The collection is stored in a private room off from the gallery with exclusive access rather than having the room always visible or access expanded from just a few to more students, faculty, and Pittsburgh residents. Concealing their home is one of the ways to perpetuate the tactic of colonial extraction.


In Cultural Studies and Humanities departments, classes detail historical collecting practices of cultural artifacts forming from racism, paternalism, and colonialism. These instances include coercion and unfair dealings, or violence, like the Benin Bronzes at the British Museum. During the British Punitive Expedition in 1897, the British violated a Benin sacred ritual (despite being warned), raided the Benin palace compound, killed its inhabitants, and brought the Bronzes to England. Similar to when Olkes collected, legal regulation was unavailable, and the desire for cultural capital became increasingly popular. When thinking about the provenance of our collection, I wonder: 

  • Why did Cheryl Olkes collect these items? 
  • Did the legacy of colonialism scathe it? 
  • Did these objects, most of which relate to divination, come from Dr. Stroller’s religious apprenticeship in Mali? 
  • Does this collection follow in the tarnished legacy of other private collections? 

These belongings find themselves in a new, decontextualized home in display cases, not by choice. How Chatham approaches this new home is by their pedagogical purpose. I first learned of the collection in 2018 after being assigned an object talk on Akan Funerary Heads, which both fascinated and alarmed me because they were in cemetery groves to honor the deceased. As a Black student at a PWI, handling these works brought up mixed emotions. On one hand, learning from this collection solidified my career trajectory in the art field and was a way to learn, through art, about the history and aesthetics of the African continent. 


However, much like how an umbilical cord was cut for me and my family to be in the Americas, these belongings, too, were separated from their original home.


There are many wonderful objects, such as Tanzanian dolls, Yoruba divination regalia, Baoulé (culture in present-day Ivory Coast) colon figures, Ethiopian Headrests, a Luba (located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) mask, and Tanzanian hairpins. These objects suggest cultural history, beauty standards, and daily proceedings in diverse, sophisticated cultures. Colon figures adopt Anglophilic colonial dress—pith helmets, suits, canes, and pipes ("colon" is the French noun for a colonist). The colons may be Spirit Spouses, which aided in finding a spouse in the natural world and required care along with someone’s physical spouse. They represented idealized beauty and the colonial legacy of the collection.


From the call of bell hooks (see the quote at the beginning of this article), I began to question how we construct home in the unhomely. Repatriation is a difficult step when the resources of the small liberal arts college are limited and the provenance of these belongings is unclear. But that should happen eventually. 


The first phase is to publicize the collection both digitally and physically on campus because knowledge from these belongings provides deep wisdom and medicine about homemaking. Hiring a full-time curator and caretaker of the collection who specializes in African art is another step. Once a staff member can dedicate all of their time to the collection, there should be continued partnerships with more Black organizations in the city to showcase and research this work. Learning and acknowledgment are the first steps in decolonization and, specifically in this case, amending the dissonance of universities’ African art collections.

 

1. Installation View, Animal Symbolism in African Art, Susan Bergman Gurrentz ‘56 Gallery, Chatham
University, Pittsburgh, PA, 2019. Photo by Chenoa Baker.
2. Installation View, Animal Symbolism in African Art, Susan Bergman Gurrentz ‘56 Gallery, Chatham
University, Pittsburgh, PA, 2019. The case that I worked on with a partner in one of my classes. Photo by
Chenoa Baker.
3. Artist Once Known, Akan, Funerary Head, 17th century (?). Terracotta. Dimensions Unknown. Chatham
University Cheryl Olkes Collection. Photo by Chenoa Baker.
4. Artist Once Known, Kuba, Ceremonial Cup, 19th century (?). Wood. Dimensions Unknown. Chatham
University Cheryl Olkes Collection. Photo by Chenoa Baker.
5. Artist Once Known, Mende (Helmet) Mask, 19-20th century. Wood. Dimensions Unknown. Chatham
University Cheryl Olkes Collection. Photo by Chenoa Baker.
6. Installation View, Traces of the Lost Past, Susan Bergman Gurrentz


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