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The life of African art shows its face in Portland, Maine

Water and wine pots are on display at the Museum of African Culture, but Oscar Mokeme’s collection of masks is the heart of the place. His oldest mask dates from about 1600, but most are from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Water and wine pots are on display at the Museum of African Culture, but Oscar Mokeme’s collection of masks is the heart of the place. His oldest mask dates from about 1600, but most are from the 19th and early 20th centuries. (Photos By David Lyon for The Boston Globe)
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / February 6, 2011

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PORTLAND, Maine — Oscar Mokeme waves his hand in an arc. “I call this the smallest museum in the world,’’ he says, “but it is full of thoughts, ideas, and energy.’’ Of the three exhibit areas of the Museum of African Culture, the mask room is its heart. The specific displays may rotate, but the area always feels like an exuberant conversation. The masks are the animate faces of entire human forms — a far cry from elegant carvings primly spaced on white walls.

These powerful pieces come from Mokeme’s personal collection, which he began after visiting London as a teenager and seeing African art in a museum. “It was not properly displayed,’’ he says tactfully. The masks were presented out of context as mute art objects instead of as active forces that embody ideas and traditions.

“I felt a personal need to address that,’’ Mokeme says. “At the age of 16 I became obsessed with creating a library of thought to show the value and wisdom of African art.’’ On returning to Nigeria, the Igbo youth began to collect and safeguard masks that had been passed down in families, often for generations. His oldest mask dates from about 1600, but most are from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mokeme tries to preserve the full regalia that accompanies a mask. The additional carvings and textiles magnify the presence of the mask itself, and the combination of mask and regalia represents spirits in traditional ceremonies. Detailed wall texts explain the origins, ownership, and functions of the masks. “The art of Africa is not decorative,’’ he explains. “These pieces are tools that convey ideas. Art represents a whole school of thought.’’

Mokeme often displays the mask made for him when he was 11 and about to enter manhood. He carries on his family tradition as a healer, and studied psychology in the United States. “I became obsessed with translating the values and wisdom of African art into Western terms,’’ he says.

Schoolchildren visiting the museum find the masks represent attitudes and values that resonate across cultures and over the ages: respect for the wisdom of elders, ability to resist temptation, the pitfalls of materialism. Symbols provide clues to meaning. A line down a face indicates balance, horns denote strength, prominent teeth the enforcement of moral law. “Some masks deal with self knowledge,’’ Mokeme says, “a simple but challenging question.’’

Expatriate Africans often visit the museum. “This is like an emergency room for Africans,’’ Mokeme says. “They come here when they are feeling challenged or struggling to adapt to the Western world.’’

To bring the masks to life for people unfamiliar with African culture, Mokeme usually offers a “Mask of the Month’’ program on the last Friday of the month, in which he performs a particular mask. “It’s like a counseling session,’’ he says. “I go into a state of being. The divinity speaks and then I go back to Oscar again.’’

Mokeme believes the masks will speak to anyone who takes the time to listen. “People can sit down and meditate. They can listen to the silence and then find that place of stillness when they go home.’’

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

Museum of African Culture
13 Brown St., Portland
207-871-7188
www.museumafricanculture.org
Tue-Fri 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat noon-4; admission $5. Call for information about Mask of the Month programs.