Upon entering, a metal leopard figure, its body now dark-bronze colored and its swirled spots turquoise-tinged, stands out proudly in a glass case with other leopards against the earthy pearl right-hand wall.
“The Leopard motif is repeated throughout Baule art as a symbol of leadership,” reads an informational sign in the Gallery of African Art in Clinton, Mass.
The gallery is the second art museum begun by Gordon Lankton, retired president and now chairman of Nypro Inc. and founder of the Museum of Russian Icons, also in Clinton. Accessible through Sunrise Boutique, 62 High St., the Gallery of African Art opened in July 2011 and reopened in October 2012 following an expansion that has made it four times its original size.
Grown to 3,000 square feet, the gallery has helped put Clinton on the map, according to Sunrise Boutique Owner Cynthia Cannon. It now has approximately 200 out of 800 pieces on display and offers weekly tours, as well as African drumming and now dance classes.
At a small table in the Russian Tea Room of the Museum of Russian Icons, just a block away from the Gallery of African Art, Lankton explained, “I’m basically a collector.”
When he was 8 years old, he collected pennies, then Boy Scout World War II posters. Once he began to travel to such places as India and Bali, he started collecting wooden carvings.
While he didn’t find wooden carvings the one time he went to Africa, Lankton said he first started collecting African art 15 years ago, after visiting a gallery in western Massachusetts, where his daughter lives.
“It wasn’t anything serious until two years ago,” he said.
Steve Humble of Kentucky, who had 220 African carvings in his house, contacted Lankton.
“He said there were only ever 10 people who came to his house each year, and thought there should be a special space for them. And I was interested in having that space in Clinton,” said Lankton.
Humble gradually sold all of the carvings to Lankton and helped him find more through connections he had in Africa, said Lankton.
Sitting on a square brown leather-cushioned bench in the Museum of Russian Icons, Education and Outreach Manager Julia Metzidakis said because Lankton is collecting African art at such a rapid rate, she and the museum staff are exploring how to make use of his whole collection.
The gallery also has a partnership with African Community Education (ACE) in Worcester, a non-profit community-based organization that grew out of a four-year-old tutoring program run by the medical students of the University of Massachusetts to help refugee children from Liberia. The program now serves children from all African countries.
“We hope to use a lot of the African objects we have in storage to spread awareness about the gallery,” said Metzidakis.
The gallery boasts an intriguing collection of figures, jewelry, headdresses and masks, crafted, according to the galleryofafricanart.org, in “stone, wood, clay and bronze, spanning 32 tribes, including Dogon, Baule, and Bamana art.”
The space isn’t divided by tribe, explained Metzidakis, but instead by like pieces of art – “like with like.” She said that helps show what’s similar and different among tribes, and also what’s similar to and different from our own culture.
Spanning the entire back wall of the gallery is a glass case displaying both everyday items such as furniture and wooden headrests, as well as more spiritual objects like the Bansonyi Snake Headdress, which according to an informational sign, is the physical version of a Baga spirit, said to “live in the sacred forest amidst the Bansonyi or young men’s initiation group, and represents the new knowledge that young men have gained during their initiation.”
“It’s important to highlight the day-to-day basis of a people, not just the art – the practical importance in everyday life,” said Metzidakis.
There are wand audio guides available too, on which a number labeled near an artwork can be punched to learn more about the piece, narrated by Steve Humble, and there are televisions playing videos about the creation of African art and music toward the middle of the museum.
Metzidakis said her favorite piece in the gallery is the Baga Nimba Headdress. Located toward the end of the gallery facing High Street, the massive wooden headdress is set on the floor against a red wall lined with masks. The faded-gray piece has a large nose and eyes, intricate circular carvings around its face and head, and as Metzidakis described them, saggy breasts. It stands on four legs and is immediately noticed because of its sheer size.
“I love telling people on tours that it’s a headdress and watching their jaws drop. It’s show stopping – it’s a completely different way of looking at beauty,” she said.
“Visitors will be completely taken away – it offers a vacation without a passport!” said Metzidakis.
The gallery has also partnered with Zach Combs, the director of Crocodile River Music, which “promotes African and African-influenced music and culture by connecting our roster of distinguished performers and educators with audiences all over New England,” according to its website crocodilerivermusic.com/about.
Through that partnership, African drumming classes are offered on Wednesdays at the gallery and dance classes are now offered on Saturdays at the Ciccone Family Fitness Center, 45 High St. There are also free gallery tours every Thursday.
The gallery also hopes to host more activities for children. Some African folktale books have been donated.
Cannon said the response from the public has been “astonishing!”
“People are traveling from near and far to see the art and learn about another country and culture. What really surprises me is the amount of families that visit regularly. They come to drum and learn all about the African traditions.”
She said the town of Clinton is lucky to have the gallery in addition to the Museum of Russian Icons.
“Anytime you bring music, art and world culture to a town, it benefits in many ways.”
I took the above photos.