African art exhibits in the United States have been primarily focused on sculpture (masks), textiles, and decorative ornaments. The current Adelphi exhibit of African art, the Frederick and Claire Mebel Collection of African metal implements, strays from this convention by showcasing utilitarian tools that represent the daily living experiences of African communities. These metal tools encompass agricultural implements, ceremonial objects, prestige objects indicating status, and weapons of war.
For some commentators, the paucity of African metal implements in the African art paradigm can be traced to the shortsightedness of defining African art in western aesthetic terms, hence the stress on African sculpture. In the early 20th Century, western artists embraced the non-western conventions of African art which gave them a road map out of the cul-de-sacs of tired western models. Artists as varied as Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani, Klee, Derain et al were directly or indirectly influenced by African sculpture.
The Frederick and Claire Mebel Collection of African metal implements clearly indicate the definitional limitations of the early African sculptural paradigm. The recognition of metal implements as art had been a slow process, starting in the 1920s, and coming to fruition in the 1970s, when a consensus of collectors, auction houses, museum curators, and art book publishers created a new African art market for metal objects. The vast majority of objects in this exhibit are of iron. The African Iron Age dates to the third century B.C. By 1000 AD, Central and West African ethnic communities had mastered complicated, layered, sequential, and time consuming practices of iron smelting, smithing and bronze casting. Since pre-colonial times, Central and West African communities employed iron implements for cultivation leading to fully developed agricultural systems. Some Kingdoms, like Dahomey, were characterized by a royally-owned plantation system of agricultural production featuring division of labor.
Iron metallurgy had other far reaching consequences for African societies. It acted as source of income for societies who had large deposits of iron ore needed by other societies, created a sophisticated division of labor, contributed to the expansion of cities, allowed organized armies to exercise domination over lesser advanced neighbors, and created hierarchical social systems with blacksmiths very often as the privileged class.
The blacksmith in Africa was sometimes seen as being apart, ethnically different, mythologically infused, and the deliverer of magical instruments that would appease the spirits, ensure abundant harvests, make the hunt more efficient, make warfare more effective, and increase the community's wealth. Some blacksmiths, like the Dogon blacksmiths, passed their skills down to their descendants in an artisan based caste. In other societies, knowledge was controlled by master craftsmen who were members of exclusive and insular guilds. Due to their extraordinary skills, these artisans achieved high status and high economic standing in African communities.
Early colonialism-17th to 19th century-damaged, to a certain extent, the indigenous African metal making industry by the importation of cheaper mass produced metal implements from Europe. But whereas metal implements of daily usage were sometimes supplanted by European tools, prestige and ritualistic objects of metal remained firmly ensconced in the traditions and the culture of the society. In short, elite metal makers and elite protectors in the ruling classes of African societies managed to carry on traditional metallurgy while ceding political power in their societies to colonial overlords.
We have not culled the Mebel Collection but are presenting it in its totality. The metal implements in this collection, though attributed to the 19th century, are representative of the technological and artistic traditions predating the destructive European incursions and destabilizing of African societies by slave-trading and colonialism. The 50 pieces in this exhibit herald the communal values of spirituality, power, fertility, war and the land. The Mebel Collection, donated to Adelphi University, represents metal implements from West and Central Africa (There are four pieces from the greatly underappreciated artistic traditions of East Africa). The collection comprises axes, adzes, daggers, swords, and ceremonial instruments. The collection speaks to the magnificent skills and techniques of these long gone and forgotten master craftsmen of West and Central Africa.
The extent of war-related instruments in this exhibit speaks to certain patterns of uneasy relations between societies, but also to the care of the artisans of these societies of infusing even weapons of destruction with unsullied beauty (see Ngombe sword).
The African Art Collection came to Adelphi University by generous donation from Frederick and Claire Mebel almost twenty years ago. The Mebels became impassioned by modern art, Oceanic, Pre-Columbian, Japanese woodblock prints, Native American and later African art. The Long Island natives collected together, frequenting galleries and auction houses in New York and Europe.
Claire Mebel, (1916-1993), neé Messing, who attended Adelphi University majoring in French and Latin, graduated in 1937. Frederick Mebel, (1913-1998), was a graduate of Dartmouth University, where he watched Mexican mural-artist, Jose Clemente Orozco paint the "The Epic of American Civilization" on the Baker Library walls. After graduating in 1935, Frederick Mebel entered the army and fought in World War II, while Claire cared for their first child. Upon his return from the war, Frederick Mebel started his dermatology practice in Rockville Centre.
Their desire for a cohesive collection began upon viewing a friend’s collected works. Until then, collecting was merely for decoration, however, it grew to a beautiful example of love and togetherness. It started with 20th Century American and European art. Works by Picasso, Matisse, Calder, Dubuffet, Bellows, Lichtenstein and Stella were collected and widely exhibited including a brief stay at Alumnae House at Adelphi University in 1984.
As time passed the collection transformed and culminated with African metal implements- swords, knives, axes, and wooden sculpture. They gathered works from prestigious galleries and auction houses in Europe that had colonies on the African continent. The Mebels acquired their pieces before most New York City galleries and their collection became highly sought after. Their collection was dispersed among some of the top institutions. Works were hand selected by curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while others were donated to the Smithsonian Institute, Dartmouth’s Hood Museum, Emory University and Adelphi University. Their sculptural quality was their main appeal. As Claire Mebel said in an article from Newsday in 1988, “They expressed their everyday living in fine art."
This Adelphi collection of Frederick and Claire Mebel, first shown in 1984, is merely a part of a larger collection that has been distributed and exhibited at other Universities (Dartmouth, 1981; C. W. Post, 1984). The Mebel Collection represents the collection aesthetics of Frederick Mebel and Claire Mebel. It is a fairly representative collection of West African and Central African metal implements. But like all art removed from traditional societies, it is of necessity decontextualized, as they have been removed from their environmental moorings and explicit purposes to stand naked in a small museum/gallery. But this nakedness allows us to infuse this art with both the perceived original context and our own current aesthetic biases. African art has generally been characterized by extrinsic values (purposes outside of the object which defines/values the object e.g. political, economic) as opposed to intrinsic value such as art for art's sake.
We invite you to embrace the dual prisms of context (extrinsic values) and aesthetics (intrinsic values) as you make your way through the Frederick and Claire Mebel Collection of African metal instruments in the Adelphi University Gallery.