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The best collection of traditional African art on display in Little Rock is arranged on ordinary metal shelves in a small room on the second floor of the Donald W. Reynolds Library at Philander Smith College. The Melissa and Kevin Katz Collection is made up of 25 sculptures, carvings and castings, most from West Africa. Named after the two Texas optometrists who donated the art, the collection has been valued at almost $950,000.
It was officially opened to the public last week as part of the four-day celebration surrounding the inauguration of Philander Smith's new president, Dr. Roderick Smothers. Thursday afternoon, student-led tour groups clumped just inside the library's entryway. I joined the first group as it circled clockwise around the main-floor stacks, where art from the college's permanent collection of contemporary African-American art is on display. Impressive as it is, I slipped away from the tour group and climbed the stairs to the second floor.
In a small room off the central rotunda were the African artworks, most of them displayed on open shelves and a few in a glass-front cabinet. A large decorative house post simply leaned against the wall in one corner, but was no less impressive for the method of display. (A custom display case is being built for the collection.) The artworks are of such high quality and so accessible to the visitor that the librarian in charge was hesitant to allow photographs for fear that I might sell them.
The room soon filled with Philander Smith alumni back for the weekend, and the librarian turned her attention to them, showing them a map of Africa on a small easel with pushpins marking where each piece originated: Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Standing just outside the room, shaking hands and posing for photos with everyone who approached him, was the soon-to-be-inaugurated Smothers. He graciously agreed to an impromptu interview about the exhibit.
When asked about his role in securing the Katz Collection, Smothers said rather modestly, "I am somewhat responsible for that."
The truth is, he had a great deal to do with it. Smothers most recently served as vice president for institutional advancement at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, where he was responsible for, among other things, fundraising. It was during his time in Texas that he cultivated a relationship with the Katzes, who made a donation of African art to Huston-Tillotson during Smothers' tenure. When Smothers was hired by Philander Smith, he approached the Katzes about a donation for his new school.
More than a mere showpiece, though, the collection feeds into a larger vision for Philander Smith. "We thought it would be appropriate that we opened and shared this collection with the whole community for the inauguration," Smothers said, "because we are truly focusing on reviving the arts and humanities here."
Smothers sees art as central in building a creative and innovative society. "Art, in my opinion, inspires the best in all of us," he said. "It does in me."
I caught up with the library director, Teresa Ojezua, who is overseeing the Katz Collection exhibit, last Friday. Gone were the tour groups, the student docents and alumni.
"The collection, as you can see, comes from nine different countries in Africa," she said, pointing to the map of Africa on the easel. "And of course they are in various media. We see up on the upper shelf the bronze castings. And then we have wood, and also we have some other kinds of materials, like cowrie shells."
"All those up there are from Nigeria," she said, pointing to the metal sculptures of a palace guard, court attendant and royal figure on the top shelf. "They are from my city."
Ojezua is from Benin City. Each skilled trade, she explained, is done in its own part of the city, often on a single street — the woodcarvers in this area, the stoneworkers down that street. The men who made bronze castings, such as these, worked in her parents' neighborhood, and Ojezua herself had walked by them often. "I have seen it done, plenty."
"I come from a family of artists," she said. "Actually, four of my siblings are artists — one is a sculptor, one is a graphic artist, and two do painting." Ojezua left Nigeria in 1972 to pursue her education in the United States, but refuses to give up her accent.
"I have a favorite piece," Ojezua said. "My piece is — let me show you," and led me not to one of the bronze castings from her hometown or a cowrie-encrusted mask, but to a ceremonial drum on the far end of the metal shelves.
"It tells a story," Ojezua said, a story that she can read. The drum's wooden base is carved into the shape of a female — a maiden, Ojezua said, judging by the hairstyle. The woman is genuflecting, holding out a bowl that would have traditionally offered kola nuts or palm wine. The figure also tells the story of most women in West Africa at a time before they had the opportunity to leave and go to university, Ojezua explained, tapping three beats on the drum head.
For Ojezua, the Katz Collection is a counterpoint to the permanent collection of African-American art displayed elsewhere in the library. "It will enable students or researchers to see that connection between artists in the Diaspora and artists back in Africa."
The Katz Collection will be on permanent display in the library and is open to the public.