A home for African art

January 31, 1991|By Clarice Scriber

Buried deep inside the Oakland neighborhood of Columbia resides a little-known treasure -- the Maryland Museum of African Art. One of a handful of American museums devoted exclusively to the exhibition of African art, this decade-old institution brings the African aesthetic alive to Marylanders who might not otherwise know it.

From Gambia in the west to Ghana in the east, traditional African artifacts in the museum and gift shop depict the beauty and mystery of African life and culture. All this becomes even more dramatic against the genteel backdrop of the museum's home, Oakland, a restored 19th century mansion.

In the museum, executive director and museum founder Doris Hillian Ligon and curator Dr. Kwaku Ofori-Ansa, a Howard University art history professor, have brought together a representative mosaic of traditional African art, beadwork, baskets, masks, sculpture, paintings and garments.

The museum currently features two exhibits, "African Art Through Time and Space," a collection of art from African artists on and off the continent; and "African Art in Columbia Area Collections," from the collections of Columbia residents.

"African art was the inspiration for a lot of art done by non-African people and credit was given to someone else," Mrs. Ligon said.

Mrs. Ligon pointed to the work of Harlem Renaissance artists and that of Jacob Lawrence and the late Romare Bearden as examples of African influence in African-American art.

Baltimore artist Robert Ware is "a classic example" of this group of artists, whose work reflects a strong African influence, Mrs. Ligon said.

As Columbia's first museum, the Maryland Museum of African Art enjoys corporate and individual support from its neighbors. The museum counts on a cadre of more than 50 volunteers (from the Washington-Baltimore corridor) to keep it operating on its six-day schedule. (It is open Tuesdays through Sundays.) The museum served more than 30,000 visitors the past two years, according to Mrs. Ligon.

Raising funds is an integral part of the museum's agenda, as it is for most cultural institutions. The museum accepts donations, but entry to the museum is free and membership fees are nominal.

Long before she became an art collector and exhibitor, Doris Ligon yearned to know more about the aesthetic of her cultural heritage. In the early 1970s, the diminutive 54-year-old Baltimore native took an art course, "Art in Man's Culture," at Howard Community College. Dismayed that Africa was omitted from the course syllabus, Mrs. Ligon vowed then to learn more about the subject.

Mrs. Ligon took a graduate degree in art history and musicology at Morgan State University and began a Ph.D. program in African history at Howard University. She also visited a number of museums, hoping to see a collection that would satisfy her interest in African art. She didn't find what she was looking for in either her Ph.D. program or in the museums she visited.

"I wasn't happy with the exhibits," she explained. "[And] I wasn't happy with the vocabulary of the art in major and minor museums."

"We need another museum," she said she told her husband, Dr. Claude Ligon, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former Morgan State University professor. "He said, 'Stop complaining and start your own museum.' "

For a time, she resisted. "My children were grown; I was a full-time student, enjoying the good life," she said. More importantly, she wasn't convinced it would work. Her husband was, and after much encouragement from him, she responded to the challenge.

In 1980, the museum was born in the family room of the couple's Columbia home. "We started out as a museum without walls."

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