Introducing the Art Collection

Every month, we will introduce one work of art in the Colleges’ collections. We invite your comments!

African Akan Akuaba Doll, Akumamas, 1700-99. Ghana Wood, 25 cm h. Gift of Dr. Stephen Weininger. hws-af-1

This lovely sculpture was donated in June of 1984 by alumnus Dr. Stephen Weininger ‘ who professor emeritus of chemistry at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Dr. Weininger gave us a number of African pieces of which this is a favorite.

The Akan is a group of peoples living along the Guinea coast and sharing a language. Most of the Akan live in Ghana. Traditional Akan society is composed of matrilineal clans tracing their descent from a common female ancestor. Paternal descent is also important and determines membership in religious groups. The most prominent aspect of Akan religion is an ancestor cult, althought they believe in a supreme deity who created the universes as well as lesser gods and spirits.

The common name for this small figure is Akumamas. It is a fertility symbols worn by women to encourage pregnancy.

The flat round head is an ideal of Akan beauty. The flattened shape of the sculpture also serves a practical purpose, since women carry the figures against their backs wrapped in their skirt, evoking the manner that infants are carried. Akuaba also function to protect against deformity or even ugliness in a child. The abstracted, horizontal arms and cylindrical torso end in a base rather than legs. The vertical lined coiffure is also typical of these figures.

During pregnancy, Akan women are not supposed to gaze upon anything (or anybody) physically unattractive, lest it influence the features of her own child. Also standard are the scarification marks which protect against convulsions. All genuine akuaba are female images, primarily because Akua’s first child was a girl but also because Akan society is matrilineal, so women prefer female children who will perpetuate the family line.

The legend of the origination of the Akuaba doll comes from the story of a woman named “Akua” who could not get pregnant and went to a local diviner or priest and commissioned the carving of a small wooden doll. She carried and cared for the doll as if it were her own child, feeding it, bathing it and so on. Soon the people in the village started calling it “Akua” “ba” – meaning “Akua’s child”, since “ba” meant child. She soon became pregnant and her daughter grew up with the doll.

If an Akan/Asante woman had difficulty conceiving she would be encouraged to visit, accompanied by a senior woman in her family, a local shrine and purchase an Akuaba. Once the woman conceived and had a successful delivery, she would return the figure to the shrine as a form of offering. If the child died, the Akuaba might be kept by the woman as a memorial.

The wood carving industry of the Akan of Ghana is an indigenous craft tradition that remains vigorous in a world of rapid change. Wood carving has retained its economic and cultural importance for hundreds of years. Wood is one of the most important materials Akan use in their arts to express their thoughts.

Cletus Johnson: Abiding Art + Architecture

“The portal aspect is a primary interest of mine in these designs and theater,” Mr. Johnson states when asked about the subject of his works. “They are an entrance way, a portal between other worlds, a façade.”

Making his entrance into the New York Art Scene in 1974, Cletus Johnson’s work exudes an air of mystery, nostalgia, and wry humor. From his shadow box theaters to his collage compositions, Cletus’s creation of a language derived from forgotten and fragmented materials, memories, and places is captivating. Through poetics and wistfulness, each piece gives way for the viewer to interpret and speculate about its layers; these strata are both evident within Mr. Johnson’s creative process and work as a physical manifestation.

Built upon a lifelong fascination with theaters, both for their architectural and dramatic impact, Cletus created his first shadowbox theater in the mid 1960s. Having previously worked as set designer and right hand for the late artist Louise Nevelson, Mr. Johnson’s craft, imagination, and precision run parallel to his experiences within the art and design worlds. Each theater, matte gray and skillfully lit, constructed of building remnants and found objects, presents a façade that intertwines exterior architectural detail with interior performance. Glancing at his work is akin to the moment of building anticipation one experiences before the thick velvet curtain pops open and “the show” begins.

“They begin in many different ways,” Cletus explains. “There will be an architectural element that I have seen somewhere, a detail or specific building that has something about it that I want to adapt into one of my theaters. A name might start a theater going, or a style of architecture or theme.”

Highlighted in his show, alongside several collages, including Cletus’s collaborative work with American poet and author Robert Creeley, will be a themed collection of Oasis theaters. A series Johnson has been working on since the 1970’s, its name in many ways parallels the life instilled within each piece. “A name in lights, Oasis is a very wonderful title for a portal. The meaning of the word is very romantic, and much more than romantic, its very powerful, a safe spot in the desert, a source of life where there is water.”

Abiding art + architecture, Cletus’s mixed media assemblages unfold an enduring relationship and development of a technique and body of work, meticulously crafted and underexposed. Savvy, intricate, and alluring, these works contain a consistency rooted within his language and means of making and interpreting the world. Transformative in their ability to take you on a journey onto a stage vaguely remembered or hauntingly fresh, Mr. Johnson’s work is also a portal into the life and soul of the artist.