- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

Some art collectors, such as Lawrence Gussman, collect in unusual ways. Mr. Gussman, 86, then head of a specialty chemical business in New York, visited Dr. Albert Schweitzer's hospital in Lambarene, Gabon, in 1957. It was the beginning of a warm friendship between him and the Nobel Prize-winning medical missionary and the start of Mr. Gussman's love for the people of Gabon and their culture and arts.

Mr. Gussman returned many summers to work as a volunteer at Dr. Schweitzer's hospital. Despite their close relationship, the doctor didn't spare Mr. Gussman the unpleasant jobs. On one of the trips, Dr. Schweitzer told Mr. Gussman to clean up the dispensary, and the New Yorker did it cheerfully.

Eventually, from his annual trips during the next 30 years, he amassed a significant collection of art from central Africa. His collection is on view at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art. It is very much his "personal journey," as the exhibition title states.

The museum has gone all out to present the collection in attractive ways. The show contains works from the late 19th to early 20th centuries and is organized by themes rather than tribes. The curators mounted the mostly small, chunky, carved wooden figures in intimately scaled rooms and sectionals of brilliant pumpkin orange. African music creates an appropriate ambience.

A map at the beginning of the exhibit denotes the geographical areas and the groups that created the art. Yet keeping names straight is almost impossible as visitors traverse the exhibition of 75 objects and 30 cultures from the present-day nations of Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and Zambia. Many names of peoples, such as Lilwa, Luba and Lulua, are similar. Handouts of the map for viewers to carry through the exhibition would be useful.

Carved figures that express beliefs about the life-and-death cycle are the strongest part of the Gussman collection. Spiritual links between the living and the dead take the form of reliquaries containers that in these instances hold preserved pieces of skull and bones of important ancestors in Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Reliquaries were used in ancient cultures from China to Mesopotamia to Egypt, and it's intriguing to see how these Africans make theirs.

Central African reliquary guardian figures transmit power and spiritual strength through compressed containment and solidity. The maker of a male and female guardian pair tensed them with half-bent legs, long and columnar torsos, clenched arms and hands, and menacing faces. In another, "Half-length Figure on Reliquary Lid" by the Fang peoples of Gabon, eyes of brass tacks stare down all enemies while what could be fists clench tightly.

Others in which the torsos look as if the carver pulled them to make them longer could well be inspirations for the modern sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who worked in Paris about the same time. Many figures repeat the format of clenched hands, long torso, popping eyes and bent knees.

The compressed angularity of certain parts of the body extends to the impressive Fang peoples' "Harp," which appropriately opens the exhibition. The exhibit label says this rare musical instrument expresses the spiritual teachings of the religious organization Bwiti, which combines local rituals with Christianity. The harp symbolizes the body and voice of Nyingwan Mbege, "Sister of God," to "whose life-giving benevolence Bwiti members appeal." The Bwiti believe the harp is the most important communicator between the living and dead.

The art and the show, of course, address more concerns of central Africans, such as "status and power," "divination and spiritual power" and "figurative sculpture." The section on masks is especially effective. "Female Figure," by the Punu or Lumbo peoples of Gabon, has sensuously elongated eyes and mouth and a decorative necklace of leopard's teeth.

Finely wrought axes and adzes were among the accouterments of high-ranking Luba to indicate status, and many handsome examples are in theexhibition.

The gifts are brought together for one last tour by the three museums that received Mr. Gussman's collection. The exhibition is coordinated by the National Museum of African Art; the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York; and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. It's a real pleasure to see it still in its whole here.

WHAT: "A Personal Journey: Central African Art From the Lawrence Gussman Collection"

WHERE: National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, until 8 p.m. Thursdays, through Aug. 18


PHONE: 202/357-2700

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