UWM exhibition highlights African, Oceanic art

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Art History Gallery will feature a selection of African and Oceanic art from the collection of Gene and Inez Gilbert Feb. 9-23. The gallery is located in room 154 of Mitchell Hall, 3203 N. Downer Ave. Gallery hours are Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Andrea Stone, professor of art history, will give a gallery talk at 6 p.m. Feb. 9 at an opening reception for the exhibition, which includes works donated to the university by the Gilberts.

“The works are very three-dimensional; they have a real sense of presence,” says Stone, whose teaching and research focus on non-Western art. “They’re spare, but very powerful as physical objects.”

Stone knows both the art and the collectors, since Gene Gilbert took a number of classes from her starting in the 1980s.  He had already  been collecting both African and New Guinea art well before she met him, says Stone, and continued traveling and collecting during the 1980s. He took the classes to learn more about areas he was familiar with, she adds.

The Gilbert’s interest in the art grew out of his curiosity about non-Western cultures, and  took him and his wife into areas rarely visited by tourists. A friendship developed between Stone and the Gilberts as they shared stories of their adventures around the world.

The Gilberts’ journeys took them throughout Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands. “They didn’t want to just go to Europe and stay in hotels,” says Stone. “ They loved seeing every corner of the world.”

The 22 pieces in the exhibition come from Papua New Guinea, the Asmat region of New Guinea (now part of Indonesia), and West and Central Africa. “The Gilberts are delighted to make this donation to the university where it will be used for teaching others,” says Stone.

Most of the pieces are wooden sculptures, but there also is one vegetable-fiber mask, all created by local artists in remote areas. “These people don’t have a lot of material wealth,” says Stone, “but they have a wonderful art tradition.”

The Gilberts collected much of the Oceanic art in person, traveling both in Papua New Guinea and the western half of the island, now called Papua Province. Along with Milwaukee gallery owner Judith Posner, they traveled by canoe and on foot into the land of the Asmat, famous in the past as headhunters, according to Stone. The Asmat are now known for their intricate wooden sculptures, and the Gilberts were able to meet the carvers and get a sense of how the objects fit into daily village life, she adds.

While most of the works in the exhibition are tied to religious beliefs and were originally made for ritual purposes, the artists also created objects for tourists and visitors, says Stone. Over time, the art created in these remote areas has become well known and sought after by collectors.

“The bold sculptural quality of these objects is powerful,” writes Stone in her forward to the exhibition catalog. “Their employment of visually striking materials culled from the natural environment, such as shells, feathers and pigments, often bonded by tree resin, is a testimony to the artists’ resourcefulness. Students and the public will benefit from the ability to see this work firsthand, though, unlike the Gilberts, they may never get to walk in the villages where these objects were created.”