African art exhibit returns after 15 years

Jacob WaringReporter

The opening reception for the The Herman Copen Collection of African Art, on display
for the second time in the Southern’s history, was on Wednesday, October 17th from 4:30pm to 6:30pm.

The gallery director, Cort Sierpinski, who also teaches full-time spoke about the history of the exhibit. All of the pieces were submitted by Herman Copen, an avid collector, who had over 3,000 pieces of art in his collection before his death in 2002.

“He had a passion for African art,” said Sierpinski. “He traveled extensively through Africa, and he kept purchasing artwork whenever he could.”

Southern received nearly 60 pieces from his collection, said Sierpinski. He said he does not know where the rest of Copen’s collection is.

Sierpinski said Southern has been in posession of this collection for nearly 20 years, and this is the second time that it has been on display.

According to both the catalog provided in the gallery and Sierpinski, the last time the exhibit was last featured in 2003, and students from a “The History of African Art” course had researched and wrote the excerpts that accompany the pieces in the gallery. Zdenka Pospisil was the professor of the class and oversaw the research.

The pieces were previously damaged during flooding that occurred during the renovation of the library a few years ago, according to Sierpinski. The Chicago Conservation Center was hired to restore the pieces.

“They brought them all back to Chicago where they were located – and they quickly did sort of a triage on what they could save immediately just be dehydrating the water that some of the wood pieces had accumulated, and then they assessed all the work that was in our collection,” said Sierpinski.

Many of the students who attended the reception had a piece that spoke to them personally. John “Jack” Holland, an undeclared major, was inspired by the collection’s different faces, and the piece, “Standing Figure with Raised Arms.”

“Just the fact that most of it seems to be human body – I mean, there’s some animals in here too – but they’re so abstract and so- I dunno, it’s just really interesting interpretations,” he said.

Holland said he appreciated seeing this kind of art, it is not usually seen.

“I’ve seen African artwork around,” Holland said, “but seeing it all laid out like this, where you can see multiple pieces from the same culture, really kind of makes a difference.”

Sergio Escobar, a graphic design major, said he felt inspired by the African art. He said

the facial mask is one of the pieces of artwork that inspired him because that sort of African art is what inspired Picasso.

“It has been a wonderful experience to visit some of the historical art of African culture,
and to see how Picasso was inspired by African art in his artwork. As an art student here, it has given me the motivation to implement the abstract style within my future works,” said Escobar.

Amy Rairan, a psychology major, said one particular African art piece that caught her attention was the “Gelede Headdress,” that originated from Yorumba, Nigeria. This headdress is only worn by men in the culture. These men would wear it during annual masquerades that were designed to honor, appease and encourage mature women, prompting them to use their powers for the good of the community.

“The fact that men wore it, that they were supposed to pretend to be something they weren’t, it says in the description that wore it and had to act like how it was. Like they would have to act like a pregnant woman or something,” said Rairan. “That spoke out to me, and also that’s kind of really heavy, so how would they keep it on?”

Terrence Lavin, chairperson of the art department, occupies a supervisory and advisory role, choosing the faculty to run the gallery, deciding what shows run, finding student workers, keeping the gallery open, and doing his best to continue to secure funding for the gallery.

“I talked to a couple of students who were really interested in knowing more about where the work came from and were interested in the information on all the placards, and really wanted to know how old some of this work was,” said Lavin. “They were really interested in learning more about it which is exactly what we want,” said Terrence.

Photo Credit: Jacob Waring


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