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Research + Collections Stories

Uncovering + Recovering Histories: Contextualizing MOA’s African Collection

The primary role of MOA’s Volunteer Research Committee is to provide in-depth information about particular items in the MOA Collection, as directed by the curators. Additionally, the team may work on transcribing recorded interviews, translating documents pertaining to the collections and researching artist biographies. The work to “decolonize” the African collection is our most ambitious project. I have spent almost five years as a Research Volunteer Associate working on this important goal.

MOA has a good track record of raising the understanding of First Nations objects and belongings by providing context, delivered through digital platforms, education and public programs, publications and daily guided tours. When I first visited MOA in 2014, I noticed that the information available on the African collection did not offer nearly as much context as that of the First Nations of British Columbia.

From my own work with museums globally I understand the importance of context. African objects and belongings have mostly been reclassified—somewhat inconveniently—from “ethnographic collection” to “African art collection,” “Africana” or “African collection” in museums and galleries around the world. I say inconvenient because I have witnessed institutions struggle to accommodate collections in spaces that remove objects from information about their contexts. Indeed, the crux of the issue is the lack of public understanding of the diversity of African cultures past and present, and poor information accompanying objects at the point of their acquisition.

I see a model for the African objects and belongings in the way that MOA is constantly working to improve its presentation and contextualization of the First Nations collections. This is what first drew me to approach MOA about its African collection; the ensuing conversations resulted in the project to decolonize the African collection.

Figure by Mutisya Munge. MOA Collection K4.190. Photo by Rebecca Pasch.

Let me explain how we are bringing out the richness of the African collection, using a couple of examples. I saw an interesting wooden sculpture of a man on a bicycle with a large Fez-like hat (MOA Collection K4.190). The description originally stated he was a postman, and that the piece was from Kenya. I knew that there are no postmen in Kenya; instead, people use post boxes at general post offices. There had to be more to this story. My previous research on the First World War in London led to my realization that this carving depicted an African soldier, or Askari, of the King’s African Rifles from the First World War. The sculpture was, therefore, almost a century old! While Canadian soldiers were at the Somme, Vimy Ridge and Passchendale, African soldiers were fighting the Germans in Southwest Africa (Namibia) and German East Africa or Tanganyika (Tanzania).

A couple of similar sculptures exist in London. They were all produced by a carver called Mutisya Munge, who had been a soldier. Munge’s work was commissioned and presented to the Duke of Gloucester, and that’s how those pieces ultimately ended up at the British Museum. Three more pieces were presented to the Anglican Archbishop of Nairobi, and then ended up with a private collector, who donated them to MOA in 1966. Two of these sculptures (the other is K4.189) are among the very few pieces of African war art from the Great War anywhere in the world.

Mutisya Munge became a mentor for other Akamba carvers, members of an ethnic group known in most English-language sources as Kamba. Their language is Kikamba, and their homeland is called Ukambeni. With the arrival of Safari tourism to Kenya in the 1950s, this generation of Akamba artists pioneered a thriving tradition of African carving that is also represented in the MOA Collection.

These salient pieces of information are an example of what we are attempting to provide for the African collection at MOA. With research we endeavour to attribute authorship, where possible, and to highlight the cultural significance of the collection, thereby bringing contextual information on par with the First Nations collection.