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Art Notes: Hood Museum’s ‘Art of Weapons’ Paints Masculinity

  • Ugochukwu C. Nzewi is the Hood Museum’s first curator of African art.(Courtesy photograph)

    Ugochukwu C. Nzewi is the Hood Museum’s first curator of African art.(Courtesy photograph)

  • Unknown artist, Nuer peoples, Sudan, Eastern Africa, hippopotamus hide shield, collected 1946-48, hide and wood. (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College)

    Unknown artist, Nuer peoples, Sudan, Eastern Africa, hippopotamus hide shield, collected 1946-48, hide and wood. (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College)

  • Ugochukwu C. Nzewi is the Hood Museum’s first curator of African art.(Courtesy photograph)
  • Unknown artist, Nuer peoples, Sudan, Eastern Africa, hippopotamus hide shield, collected 1946-48, hide and wood. (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College)

The 21st century American soldier goes into battle in body armor, a combat helmet designed to withstand shock and concussion, a waist pack, an assault pack, an ammunition pack and protective eye glasses. All of these are intended to protect the soldier’s head and body as much as possible, but they cannot, of course, completely prevent injury or death.

A 19th century Zulu warrior went into battle with his own version of body armor, a tough, reinforced shield that he held close to deflect stabs to his torso. He usually carried a long spear, a shorter stabbing knife, a club, and bristled with offensive and defensive power.

Here was a warrior possessed of superior skill and superior technology. A spear that could travel farther, a sword that could slice more efficiently, a club that could effectively shatter bone. And when in his full regalia of headdress and body ornamentation, he must have inspired awe and dread, and admiration.

“What makes a man beautiful and handsome as a man is his fearsomeness as a warrior,” said Ugochukwu C. Nzewi, curator of African Art at the Hood Museum of Art, who has organized the recently opened exhibition “The Art of Weapons,” which includes 70 objects from the museum’s collection of African art. The objects represent some 40 cultures from sub-Saharan Africa, from the Congo, Sudan, Gabon, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

A significant difference between an American’s equipment and that of, say, a Maasai or Zulu warrior is that the array of spears, knives, swords, shields and axes at the Hood speak to the reality of hand-to-hand combat, while the insulation of modern armor speaks to the dominance of firepower. And a modern American soldier is not outfitted with aesthetics in mind.

But for the master Zulu, Maasai, Kondo or Shilluk craftsmen who made the gleaming weapons, their ingenious, elegant designs said as much about their artistry as it did about the cultures for which they were made.

“The design aesthetic didn’t drop from the sky. It belonged to an individual who reflected the culture of a society,” said Nzewi, who also goes by the name Smooth.

Many of the weapons were intended to show off the status and privilege of the person carrying them, as well as playing symbolic roles in ceremonies and rituals. And the examples of protective charms and amulets in the exhibition speak to the warrior’s relationship with his elders and his gods as he called on them to see him through battle.

Two interconnected narratives are at work in the exhibition, said Nzewi. There’s the narrative of a particular people’s culture; and then there’s the overlay of European and American colonial ambition because the objects on view were collected during the height of the 19th and early 20th century land grabs and imposition of colonial bureaucracies.

Nzewi, himself an artist, helped to design the installation so that the weapons would be seen in a fanned-out display on a wall, a more imaginative way to show them than lining them up as if they were sticks in vertical or horizontal rows. The arrangement also speaks to how European or American collectors would have showed their trophies to maximum advantage.

“The objects are displayed this way to invoke the Victorian age in which most of these weapons were collected,” Nzewi said. “You would understand why a Westerner would go to conquer and then collect weapons. You take his weapons, and you show you conquered someone.”

There are about 1,600 objects in the Hood’s African art collection, of which more than 150 are wea pons. It’s one of the best collections of African weapons in an American college or university museum, Nzewi said, and it represents a variety of sources.

Some pieces were collected by Rev. Josiah Tyler, the son of Dartmouth’s fifth president, who collected Zulu weapons while he was a missionary in Natal, South Africa in the mid- to late-1800s. Others came in as direct purchases, or as gifts from Dartmouth alumni.

There’s a third angle to the show: a portrait of a masculine ethos, which Nzewi wanted to do as a counterpoint to the Hood’s 2008 exhibition “Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body.”

Nzewi began his job as curator last August; he is the first person in the history of the museum specifically appointed Curator of African art. Born and raised in Nigeria, he earned a Ph.D. in Art History from Emory University in Atlanta. He’s recently returned from Dakar, Senegal where he curated the Dakar Biennale, the prestigious venue for contemporary African art, and about which he wrote his dissertation.

“I’m very comfortable in different genres and the historical canon,” Nzewi said. “I’m someone who’s able to walk across different areas of African art.”

The director of the museum, Michael Taylor, wrote in an email that he brought Nzewi to the museum to “shake things up.” The weapons exhibition “demonstrates what happens when you bring someone like Smooth to look at the collection with a fresh pair of eyes and a strong curatorial vision,” Taylor wrote. Nzewi’s next project will be an exhibition, scheduled for 2016, on African art from the 1980s.

Because of the lighting, the arrangement and paint color used, the weapons seem to leap off the walls and into your hands. They glow with talismanic power and invite human touch, Nzewi said, before hastening to add, with a smile, that he isn’t encouraging visitors to do that.

The goal of the installation, he said, was to “find a way of allowing the image to linger in the subconscious.”

“The Art of Weapons” is on view through Dec. 20.

Openings and Receptions

This evening from 5:30 to 7:30 the Long River Studios in Lyme co-hosts a “Wine, Art...Then Dine” event with Stella’s restaurant in Lyme. Both the wine and the art are free-of-charge to the public but reservations are encouraged. Please email art@longriverstudios.net by 3 p.m. on May 29. Following the wine tasting, guests may go on to Stella’s for dinner: call 603-795-4302 to book a table and be ready to pick up your check.

∎ In “One Word Project: Portraits from Two Communities,” an exhibition in the Ledyard Gallery at the Howe Library in Hanover, Hanover High School student Mason McNulty exhibits portraits of men and women living at Kendal in Hanover, and photographs she took while working last winter in Cusco, Peru with students at Chicuchas Wasi, an alternative school for girls from the indigenous Incan population. There will be an opening reception on Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m. The show continues through June 25.

∎ ArtSpace at the Tunbridge Library will host an art opening for local artists, and friends, Abel Fillion and Lyal Michel. Fillion makes woodcut prints and Michel, figurative, narrative oil paintings. The show opens Sunday, with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. The show runs through July 25.

Ongoing

Aidron Duckworth Art Museum, in Duckworth’s former home and studio on Bean Road in Meriden, hosts “How Colors Sing,” a show of landscape drawings and abstract paintings by Amherst, Mass., artist Lorna Ritz, and “Exhibition XXIII, Simplified Forms in Color,” a show chosen by two of the museum’s new trustees that features simpler forms and figures from Duckworth’s oeuvre. The Ritz show continues through June 8, and the Duckworth show through Nov. 2.

Art on the River Gallery, Springfield. “802: Just Vermont,” a photography show by artists Goldie May and John Sinclair continues through Aug. 19.

Artistree Gallery, Woodstock. A show of work by Alastair Noble, artist in resident at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, continues through June 15. There will be a closing reception on Saturday, June 7, from 6 to 8 p.m.

AVA Gallery, Lebanon. “Overtime-A Drawing Seminar,” a show of student work continues at the AVA Gallery in Lebanon through June 6. Also on view through June 6 are the shows “David Laro-Material Matters,” “Wayne Nield-The Walls of the Reliquary,” and “White on White: Churches of Rural New England, Photographs by Steve Rosenthal.”

The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) Thesis Exhibition, featuring work by the class of 2014, continues in White River Junction through June 22.

Chandler Gallery, Randolph. The Area Artists Show, featuring work by artists from east-central Vermont, through June 15.

Collective Gallery-Art of Craft, Woodstock. The work of jeweler Joy Raskin, photographer Miranda Hammond and leathersmith Kim Rilleau through the month of June.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center , Lebanon. The spring art shows include work by painter Georgina Forbes, digital painter Gloria King Merritt and photographer Hunter Paye, as well as participants in the yearly Employee & Volunteer Art Show.

Great Hall, Springfield, Vt. Jack Rowell’s exhibition of photographs of The Hale Street Gang can be seen at the Great Hall in Springfield. through Oct. 10. Also exhibiting is Randolph designer and artist Phil Godenschwager.

Hood Museum of Art, Hanover. “The Art of Weapons: Selections from the African Collection” is on view through Dec. 20, and “In Residence: Contemporary Artists at Dartmouth” is on view through July 6. In conjunction with those exhibitions, the museum is offering the following talks and workshops to the public.

As part of its lunchtime gallery talks, Brian Miller, a senior lecturer of studio art at Dartmouth College, will speak on “Photography and the American Scene” on Tuesday, June 3, at 12:30 p.m.

Hood Museum director Michael Taylor will lead a tour of “In Residence” on Saturday, June 7, at 2 p.m.

There will be a sculpture workshop and walk on Wednesday, June 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Visitors will see some of the college’s outdoor sculptures as well as taking in the installation of sculptures by Allan Houser. Pre-registration is required. Call 603-646-1469 by June 9.

Lyme Library. The Betty Grant Gallery in the Lyme Library exhibits four art shows each year. Up now is a show of drawings and paintings by Carole-Anne Centre called “Nature Observed and Imagined” that fuse watercolor and, unexpectedly, gunpowder. Centre ignites gunpowder on paper and then paints over the patterns with watercolor. Centre’s exhibition continues through July 31.

Main Street Museum of Art , White River Junction.“Girls, Girls, Girls,” recent paintings by Daisy Rockwell, is on view.

Roth Center for Jewish Life. “2-D 4-D Fiber Art,” an exhibition of work by Hanover fiber artist Shari Boraz, is on view through June 15.

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish. “Ceremonial Concealment,” a show by Elaine Bradford, is in the Picture Gallery through July 6.

Scavenger Gallery, White River Junction. “Never Seen Again,” a suite of paintings by New York artist Judith Vivell that tackle the subject of extinction. Also on display will be new jewelry by Scavenger owner Stacy Hopkins from her collection of work cast from natural history specimens.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio , White River Junction. “Collaboration: A Study of Emotion in Color and Form,” prints by Patty Castellini and Victoria Shalvah Herzberg, runs through June 4.

Vermont Supreme Court, Montpelier. Judith Vivell, a realist painter devoted to the natural world, has an exhibition of large-scale portraits of birds in the lobby through June 27.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.