At the Queensborough Community College Art Gallery, a delicate brass mask from 18th-century Cameroon smiles mischievously, with large puffy cheeks symbolizing wisdom.
Nearby, a sacred wooden carving of a coiled snake stands guard, waiting to deliver souls into the afterlife.
The rare pieces of art from African celebratory rites and festivals formed part of the recent exhibit, “Powerful Arts of Cameroon: The Collection of Amadou Njoya.” The array of more than 100 traditional and contemporary objects from Njoya’s personal collection included statues, masks, furniture, and other objects used by notable figures during ceremonies and rituals.
Njoya, a fourth-generation Cameroo-nian, was born into a family of disting-uished artisans and advisers for the royal family of the Bamum Kingdom. His longtime friendship and support of the QCC Art Gallery led him to display his prized collection in Queens for the first time.
“It is a great honor for me and my family to display our treasures at the QCC Art Gallery,” said Njoya. “My paternal grandfather and father were collectors for nearly four decades, from 1969 until 2005. Over the years, I gained an in-depth knowledge about the pieces and was inspired to become a collector myself.”
The Cameroon exhibit illustrates the QCC Art Gallery’s bold commitment to consistently showcasing a wide and eclectic range of works, from postmodernism paintings and pre-Columbian art to Chinese pottery and emerging artists. The current show is an exhibit of paintings and lithographs by Egyptian artist Marcel Salinas, the first retrospective of his work.
However, the QCC Art Gallery, nestled on the tranquil Bayside campus, has garnered the most acclaim for its Permanent African Art Collection, one of the largest in New York City. The collection has approximately 3,000 objects, representing sub-Saharan Africa, donated from individuals across the United States. A majority of the African objects are carved in wood, but there are also works made of other materials, including ivory, copper alloys, gold, fibers, beads, animal skins, and earthenware.
Faustino Quintanilla, executive director of the gallery, said the African collection is a valuable resource, not only for the Queensborough College community, but also for residents and art lovers in Queens and Long Island. “Before we started this collection, people had to go to Manhattan to see this type of African art and history. Here they have it right in their hands. It’s accessible to them.”
One of the gallery’s goals is to acquire permanent collections reflecting the diversity of QCC’s student population and the surrounding Queens community. In addition to the African collection, the gallery is also building the Jaime Andrade Pre-Columbian Art Collection and has plans for a third permanent collection of Asian art.
The QCC Art Gallery began collecting African art in 2000 under the guidance of Leonard Kahan, a former African art gallery owner and aficionado, and in 2004, after a multimillion-dollar renovation of its facility, the gallery premiered its permanent display of African art.
New York Times art critic Holland Cotter praised QCC for its “broad vision” in elevating African Art.
“Queensborough Community College has quietly assembled an impressive collection of African art,” Cotter wrote. “With luck, other university galleries around the country will emulate it, and their numbers will grow, just as the global influence of Africa itself continues to increase.”
In describing the collection, Quintanilla noted that the exhibited objects are removed from their original context.
“Most masks were normally attached to a costume of raffia fibers or textile to hide or change the identity of the dancer,” he said. “Music and dance were an integral aspect of their active use.”
Statues, on the other hand, were generally stored in special rooms or structures — sometimes shrines — and accessibility was often restricted, especially to the uninitiated.
“In seeing these sculptures we are viewing only one aspect of the ritual or ceremony, quite divorced from the environment with which it interacted,” Quintanilla said. “But their power of form, surface or craftsmanship still carries multidimensional values to which we can relate.”
“They, too, are part of the larger expression of each African culture’s interaction between art and life, between the vital forces of gods, spirits and ancestors and the community,” Quintanilla said.
Sampling of Exhibits At CUNY Galleries
The dozens of art galleries on CUNY’s campuses provide a wealth of cultural opportunities not only for students, faculty, and staff, but for the greater New York City community.
Here are a few notable exhibits for this spring:
- Cuban America: An Empire State of Mind includes more than 35 contemporary artists of Cuban descent who have been raised in the United States or Cuba. Artists bring social, cultural and political discussions to the table while old stereotypes are revisited. This exhibition begins the gallery’s 30th-anniversary celebration. Lehman College Art Gallery through May 14.
- Ray Johnson: Collages of Art, Poetry, Music and Film highlights the work of Johnson, an early proponent of Pop and Mail Art. The Sidney Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College. Through May 7.
- Abdias Nascimento: Artist, Activist, Author displays 40 artworks by Nascimento, an artist, activist, senator and founding force in Brazil’s Black Movement. This exhibition features works focused on the theme of orishas, the deities in the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomble. Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College. April 28 – June 21. Opening reception on April 30.
The Powerful Arts of Cameroon at QCC’s Art Gallery. At left, Veronica Chin Hing, a Brooklyn College student, at right, Eric Vehstedt of Queensborough Community College viewing the display.