Is there a better moment to visit the Africa Museum than while starting preparations to embark on a journey to the cradle of mankind? Soon I will pack my bags and leave for East Africa. An update on the what, when and why will follow shortly. For now, you will have to do with a short visual tour of the museum.
I had some doubts about visiting the Africa Museum. Imagine coming across a Museum on Belgium somewhere in the middle of Congo. Looking at another culture’s history, arts, symbols, rituals, architecture, habits and ways of living from your own perspective, is somehow a tricky undertaking. With a healthy dose of reservations I wanted to give the Africa Museum a try anyway.
The Africa Museum in Berg en Dal (Nijmegen) started as a missionary museum in 1954. Many of the items in the collections were obtained by the Holy Ghost Fathers while stationed overseas. Founding the museum was their way of making their countrymen aware of, and honouring the cultures they had encountered in Africa.
We opted to visit the outdoor museum first, as the sun was shining gently and the sound of African drums was irresistible. It was somewhat estranging to step into the atmosphere of African villages and compounds while knowing that you’re actually in the midst of the Dutch countryside. The goal of the outdoor museum is to show African architecture and village life, and dusty sand paths guide you from Lesotho compounds along Benin pile dwellings to Pygmy Mongulus (leave huts) from Cameroon. After a short stop at a Nigerian chop bar, we continued to a Ghanaian compound and a Dogon village from Mali.
It’s not just kids who love the outdoor museum, playing hide and seek in the small houses and imitating village life. In no time, adults are drumming along and engaging themselves in the art of building mud houses. Although the outdoor museum is not a good representation of modern Africa, it does succeed in awakening the inner child.
Male and Female Affairs
It was especially the reconstructed Dogan village that caught my interest. It is home to the Dogon tribe. They are known for their remarkable architecture, which has been included in the UNESCO List of World Heritage since 1989. Two of the buildings in particular caught my eye.
Firstly the Toguna. The idea behind it is as ingenious as it is simple. Here, the elders (men) would meet to discuss matters in the village. It was believed that just decisions can only be made while sitting calmly. In a heated discussion, the low roof serves as a reminder to keep it cool. After all, an angry jump would only lead to a self inflicted headache.
Secondly, there’s the women’s house, where women would live during their period. While menstruating, they weren’t allowed to leave the house. A special path led them to a separate washing place. For everything else, they relied on the other women in the village. The house was off limits to men.
On a midwifery related side note: French anthropologist Marcel Griaule writes about the Dogon celebrating the birth of twins. To them, the birth of a twin served as a reminder of the “fabulous past, when all beings came into existence in twos, symbols of the balance between humans and the divine”.
From the sunny side of Africa we moved to the darkness of the indoor museum. It exhibits items collected by the missionaries combined with contemporary art, with a strong emphasis on the African diaspora. The museum treads in the footsteps of the slaves who were sold overseas, and also presents art from the Caribbean and the Americas.
‘Balance’ is key in many of the works. The museum puts a lot of emphasis on traditional African religious beliefs and practices, the cycle of life, birth and death, good and evil, sickness and healing. Maybe it is the nature of art to balance on these lines between light and darkness, as it struck me that despite their beauty, many of the carved works radiated a kind of darkness, fear, and a lack of freedom. On the other hand, it is remarkable to see the vitality that springs from the balance between the feminine and masculine life forces that many of the artists have obviously sought.
Female beauty and youth is a loved theme in African art. In the museum you will find a lovely corner on ideas on what the ideal woman looks like. So an artwork from Ivory Coast taught me that, together with a smooth and shining skin and a thin waistline, rolls of fat in the neck are a sign of beauty, as they represent prosperity. Still, I’m not convinced that the rolls won’t show up at the waistline before doing so in your neck…
While sipping a Mongozo coconut beer, I sat and pondered for a while on the chains of all sorts of slavery and colonisation. In my head, a quote that I had read in the museum echoed. I know, ‘the African’ does not exist, and neither does ‘the European’. Still, a valuable lesson might be drawn from it: “Do not judge at first sight. Get rid of Europe, its uses, its mind. Make yourself African with the Africans.”