Sharing passion for African art Museum: Creating a showplace for African artworks has fulfilled a long-held dream for Columbia's Doris Ligon.

March 02, 1997|By Dilshad D. Husain | Dilshad D. Husain,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Ordinary folks just don't start museums, Doris Ligon thought. Though she dreamed for years of her own museum of African art, she could not get past that.

But her husband, Claude Ligon, could. " 'You kill every exhibit we go to because you say this shouldn't be there and this should be labeled like that,' " she recalls him saying. " 'You say you want to start your own museum, so do it and stop complaining!' "

The next afternoon -- Oct. 8, 1980 -- the Columbia couple met with a lawyer and founded the African Art Museum of Maryland, one of only three museums in the country that display art from Africa exclusively and the only one begun by an 7/8 African-American.

Doris Ligon's small museum is housed in two rooms of the 185-year-old Oakland mansion near Columbia's center.

The other two are in New York and Washington.

Though she has borne the brunt of keeping the museum going for 17 years, Ligon, 60, still is thinking boldly. Her goal is to lay the cornerstone in three years for the museum's own building -- one big enough to display its collection of several hundred pieces now mostly kept in storage.

With two paid staff members and a small core of volunteers, the museum's exhibits cannot be rotated regularly. Instead, individual pieces are changed periodically.

One piece that has been on permanent display since 1983 is a 10 1/2 -foot-tall, 40-pound mask made from corn husks and bamboo shoots by the Chewa people of Malawi, a country of about 10 million people in southeast Africa.

It commands the attention of everyone who enters the museum. "It is probably our most popular piece," Ligon says.

With antlers on top and a tail hanging down one side, the mask is meant to cover the entire body of a dancer moving quickly and gracefully -- so that the tail flies straight out as the dancer spins.

Also on display are Ashanti gold weights, paintings, masks, musical instruments and a large Adinkra cloth from Ghana stamped with abstract designs symbolizing concepts from love to health.

Dr. Kwaku Ofori-Ansa, the museum's curator and a professor of African art at Howard University, says the museum's mission "is rooted in our conviction that understanding Africa can be achieved through understanding its visual art forms -- the artwork -- music and dance."

American interest in African art has been rising since the 1960s, says Dr. Roslyn Walker, director of the much larger National Museum of African Art in Washington, the first in the country to focus exclusively on African art.

"At that time, it was African-Americans who pushed African art and culture onto the public scene," she says. "Now, many different kinds of people are interested."

Ligon's interest also began in the 1960s.

"I used to be so negative. Back when I was growing up, nobody was saying proudly, 'Africa is my home,' " she says. "As it became more accepted, I turned toward it also.

"African art does a lot of things. It controls, it threatens, it educates, it demands respect, it keeps secrets," she says. "Unless you know what it is, unless you investigate, you'll always be just looking."

About twice a week, Ligon goes to schools or talks to school groups in the museum, using, she says, "hands-on pieces for our presentations -- masks people can put in front of their faces, stools they can sit on, cloth they can wrap around them."

Ligon considers children her most important audience because, she says, they are the most honest viewers of art: "If they have some questions to ask you, whether it's how Africans go to the bathroom or why do women wear such big jewelry, they'll ask."

Recently, Ligon went to Nature's Way Children's Center, a day care center in Columbia. She showed the children masks used in rituals, hand-woven rugs, dolls, cloths and instruments -- and let the children wear the masks and play the instruments.

"The children enjoyed the masks the most," says Sharon Shaw, an assistant teacher at the day care center. "Mrs. Ligon told them that only special people could wear the masks, and if a person dropped the mask, then it couldn't be used again.

Ligon is used to carrying around her collection. She began the museum with a few pieces kept in her car and shuttled among temporary exhibits.

The museum -- first called Gallery Ligon -- became the African Art Museum of Maryland in 1983, at the same time it found its first home at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia. It moved to Rockland Arts Center in Ellicott City in 1985 before shifting to its current home in 1989.

All the museum's pieces are donated or lent. Its $120,000 annual budget comes from private donations, fees from outreach programs, occasional grants, fund-raisers such as trips to Africa, and admission fees.

But long before the museum had a budget, there was Ligon. And Ofori-Ansa, the museum's curator, says she is its most important asset: "She is the driving force. The museum is what it is now because of Doris Ligon's passion and dedication."

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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