October 12, 2018 to January 11, 2019
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The Formation of the Collection
This unplanned collection grew from an appreciation of African art that started with my first visit to Africa in 1970. In Nigeria in 1974, I acquired the drawing The God of Smallpox Attacking a Village. However, the focus on deformity masks was stimulated by two masks with markedly asymmetrical faces in the window of the L. Kahan Gallery of African Art on East 57th Street in New York City in the 1970s.
The majority of the masks entered my collection over a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was working with the Rehabilitation Unit of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Len Kahan continued to be the primary resource for building the collection because I was not able to find this type of mask in Africa. My work certainly heightened my awareness of diseases in Africa. Masks suggesting leprosy, for example, reminded me that the new approach in multi-drug therapy promoted by WHO eliminated the disease as a public health issue. The mask depicting blindness reminded me of WHO's work to prevent blindness, but also of my dissertation research, which took place in Barbados. There I learned that visible differences in normal body structure or function were not the most dreaded type of disabilities. Rather, it was blindness, which was thought to make a person more vulnerable. To address the need for more skilled personnel to provide braces for people with polio, our Rehabilitation Unit sponsored an international meeting in Alexandria, Egypt to bring technicians from developed and developing countries together to set standards for training of personnel in less developed countries. The representative from Togo presented me with the sculpture of a man with polio, holding his hand out to beg while supporting himself on a stick. Despite the efforts of WHO, polio still existed in Africa and Asia.
Some of the masks have no direct connection to my work, but were chosen because they possessed a striking appearance, or presented a mystery because the deformity could not be identified with certainty. As a group, these masks retain the spirit of my experiences in Africa, which were always a challenge as well as a great pleasure.
By presenting these masks, and providing a historical and cultural background for them, we hope that others will learn about, and appreciate African masks that have special asymmetrical faces, as well as the sculptures that do not have the expected structure of the body.