Africa in the Attic
file download from WorldView Magazine of the National Peace Corps Association | Published December 08, 2019
The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University has received a gift of 27 works of art, including masks, figurative sculpture and musical instruments, collected by Reginald and Celeste Hodges while they lived for nearly two decades in West Africa.
The gift tells the story of a young man who grew up in Durham and a young woman from Chicago who met 50 years ago in Sierra Leone, West Africa, while volunteering in the Peace Corps. Though their villages were five hours apart, they found ways to see each other. They quickly adjusted to the slower pace of rural life, soaking up the culture—language, foods, medicinal plants, ceremonies, music. They made lifelong friends. Celeste took thousands of photos with her Pentax SLR. Reggie began collecting household items, including brightly woven cloth, stools, toys, and combs.
Reginald and Celeste married each other during their Peace Corps days and started a family. They stayed in West Africa another 17 years, working for non-profit humanitarian organizations and amassing more than 500 works of art.
What makes this gift so special is the gifters. It’s rather special to be a part of experiencing a collection that was acquired through friendship and through people who have lived amongst the art producers. We’re just very lucky at the Nasher to have this collection.Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art & Art History at Duke.
By western standards, people in rural African villages were considered impoverished. However, in Sembehun, their lives were vibrant, rich and dynamic. People were joyous and content.Reginald Hodges
IMAGE ABOVE: The schoolchildren taught Reginald and Celeste many things, including how to identify plants around the village. Most plants had a purpose. Any that did not were called “nonsense plants.”
The collectors met more than a few of the artists. Many of the works of art in their collection were personal gifts. They watched the art used in ceremonies, celebrations and inside people’s homes. They have photographs and stories about many. They are giving several hundred of Celeste’s negatives and prints to Duke’s Rubenstein Library in the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture. The Hodges family is preparing similar gifts to other art museums, including the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh. They have already donated two Bundu masks to the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one in honor of that museum’s 60th birthday, and are discussing further gifts to the Ackland.
We went to Sierra Leone to teach and to help people. But we all learned so much more and received so much more than we could ever give.Celeste Hodges
The Hodges family built their collection in a community known for extraordinary art and culture—before devastating civil wars and the Ebola epidemic took their toll in West Africa, Powell pointed out. “This material is not just lovingly collected and thoughtfully acquired, but it really represents a golden moment before political and social dissolution set in.”
Westerners call the objects collected by Reginald and Celeste “art.” Art was not a common word, however, in rural West Africa, Reginald said. People made art to serve food, play music, help with healing. Art was used in ceremonies and dancing, he said, and art was part of daily chores.
“All of these things are integrated and they all work together,” Reginald said. “The art, the music, the secret societies, the way people passed on traditional skills—the art is just one little piece of it. The music would be equal to the art. The cloth would be equal to that. The ceremonies would be equal to that. But you cannot put all of those things in a museum.”
Reginald and Celeste realized that art was the perfect entry point for talking about the way of life in rural Sierra Leone that they loved so much. Art was something they could bring home.
The African art in the Hodges collection tells the story of secret societies, problem solving, ingenuity, the creative genius and values of African people, Reginald said. The pieces are traditional because local craftsmen, using hand-made tools, conventional techniques, indigenous materials and procedures produced the items, he said. “The pieces also adhere to ethnic styles, cultural ideals and standards that have existed in African societies for hundreds of years.”
We would like to see the people, the general public, benefit from our knowledge, our experience, our art and our images. So it can hopefully stimulate interest in how people in rural Africa live and work.Reginald Hodges
When Celeste and Reginald were ready to move back to the United States with their two children, they shipped the collection home and put it into storage while working in careers unrelated to African art. When Reginald started collecting, he figured he would return to the United States as a teacher and use the art to help people understand African cultures. “So when I started collecting, this was my idea of what I would do with these things. It never happened.”
In December, Celeste retired from Duke after 18 years in the Department of Computer Science, where she was a web administrator. The couple decided it was time to give parts of their collection to museums.