Showcasing works of African art

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Tony Glaros

Doris Ligon, who with her late husband founded the African Art Museum of Maryland in Columbia, stands beside a throne from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria (with a model of a seated king in colorful clothes, whose face is concealed by a mask). The throne is one of more than 3,000 artifacts Ligon has collected for the museum. Many museum pieces are on loan to schools and other institutions throughout Howard County.
Photo by Natasha Glaros

Doris Ligon may be Baltimore born and bred, but she can’t seem to get her mind off of Africa.

“I was in my 30s before I heard anything positive about Africa,” declared Ligon, 78, who, along with her late husband, Claude, opened the African Art Museum of Maryland in Columbia 35 years ago.

“In those days,” she continued, “Africa was called the Dark Continent. In 1980, I decided there was a need for more understanding.”

The museum she and her husband founded was only the second nationwide that exclusively explored and celebrated the arts of Africa. The first was started by Warren Robbins, a cultural attaché for the State Department, who used part of a Washington, D.C., townhouse to display the African he treasures he collected.

In 1979, Robbins successfully convinced Congress to take over his collection, and it later became the seed for the establishment of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art on the National Mall.

Ligon’s museum is still just one of three African art museums in the country, and the only one founded by an African American.

Columbia’s first museum

It was also the first museum in Columbia, Ligon recalled. The museum’s original space was rented from Historic Oakland, a sprawling and stately manor house on Vantage Point Road that was built in 1811.

However, when it came time to renew the lease, the rent “was more than we could afford,” Ligon said. “They had raised it so astronomically high.”

The museum relocated several times over the years, until it settled in its present space in 2011, in intimate quarters in Maple Lawn, the nascent mixed-use development in Fulton. The museum is nestled just off the lobby of its landlord, the headquarters of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Through the decades, Ligon’s original and absorbing focus has not deviated. Nothing in the inventory speaks to European, American or Asian art. It’s a one-note production steeped in the story of the world’s oldest civilization.

“Some people call the art of Africa primitive,” she said. “We’re telling the people there’s a message in this object, placed in its indigenous setting.”

The museum’s treasures

Most of the 3,000 pieces that compose her treasure trove come from white collectors, she observed. “But blacks are beginning to collect,” she said. The pieces, she added, typically come from those who have been assigned by agencies such as the State Department or Peace Corps to a country in Africa.

Ligon, who holds an undergraduate degree in sociology and a master’s in museum studies from Morgan State University, sprang from her desk to escort a visitor on an abbreviated tour.

Upon entering the cozy, peaceful repository, visitors come face to face with a three-foot tall wooden mask designed to be danced with by the Baga people of Guinea, in West Africa.

The top half of the creation is in the shape of a bird that represents the ability to soar over the earth, skirting the Creator in heaven. The lower section conveys the sense of a fertile woman nursing her baby.

The mask is worn in celebrations of the rice harvest, equating the fertility of the land with that of human beings. “It’s about men and women working the soil, and the longevity of the Baga people. It’s about feeding new generations.”

Next, Ligon stands in the vast shadow of a giant mask from Malawi that reaches almost to the ceiling. Performing with the mask involves slipping inside the 40-pound creation and holding onto the bamboo frame. But wearing the mask is a privilege generally open only to men, she noted, in the culture of its creators.

Howard University offered to lend the museum an even larger mask, “but we would have needed a higher ceiling,” she laughed.

There’s also a Yoruba throne from Nigeria, complete with beads that conceal the face of the king when he sits in it. Lesser humans, she noted, “are not supposed to look directly on his face.”

Of course, there’s much more in the richly colored and textured collection of 419 artifacts on display. The rest are in storage or on loan to schools and other sites.

Bringing culture to the schools

Shortly after the birth of the museum, Ligon and her late husband introduced themselves to Howard County school administrators, volunteering to bring Africa and its 54 eclectic countries to life for students by sharing and speaking about selected museum pieces in classrooms.

“The children were the reason I started the museum,” she recalled, gesturing with both hands. “It is the youth that will enable people to grow up with an understanding of other cultures. Let them grow up with the truth — that people are people and that they all need the same things.”

To date, Ligon has conducted hundreds of such presentations, and installed exhibits in most of Howard County’s public and private schools. In 2009, Howard County educators decided to expand on Ligon’s efforts by incorporating a unit focusing on the countries of Kenya and Ghana into the system’s third-grade and sixth-grade curriculums.

Since then, Ligon has expanded her “African Experience” program to include schools from Baltimore to Northern Virginia. “We have served generations of school children,” she said proudly.

Ligon also leads tour groups to Africa, visiting countries such as Ghana and Senegal. Her next tour is slated for 2016 to South Africa.

What the future holds

The nonprofit museum, which welcomes donations (of both funds and art) from the public, operates on a shoestring budget. Ligon, along with her role as the founder and director, “vacuums, dusts, sweeps and has other duties as assigned,” she laughs, and is supported by a group of volunteers.

One day, she said, a mother and daughter showed up with about 30 pieces of African art. “They just wanted to give them to us and said we can do what anything we want with them. I thought, ‘My God, what is happening here? Sometimes things happen that you can’t plan.’”

One visitor who happened to stumble across the museum was Don Worsham. The North Laurel resident, a retired federal worker, was enthused that the unique facility is in Howard County.

“A lot of people don’t take the time to learn the true history of Africa,” he said. “This museum is in a great spot between Washington and Baltimore. It’s right under our noses, the perfect complement to the Smithsonian.”

In modest fashion, Ligon, her voice growing low, said her deepest hope is for the museum to continue on the same path it has traversed for 35 years.

“I will do everything ethical, legal and moral, as long as I have the strength, to see the perpetuation of this museum long after I’m gone.

“When people visit the Smithsonian, they don’t ask about Mr. James Smithson, the founder. I don’t need my name associated with this. I want this institution to continue to serve everybody who comes in that door. Long after I’m gone and forgotten, this institution will still be here.” 

The African Art Museum of Maryland is located at 11711 E. Market Place, Fulton. The museum is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and other times by appointment for groups of 10 or more.

For more information, see www.africanartmuseum.org, call (301) 490-6070, or e-mail africanartmuseumofmd@verizon.net.