Charles D. Miller III’s enduring fascination with West African culture began with his first trip there in 1968, when he visited Dahomey (now Benin), Togo and Ghana to undertake zoological research for several museums and universities. He can still recall the feeling he had when he first scooped up a handful of the red laterite soil and smelled its intoxicating aroma. To this day he keeps that same scoop of African dirt in a jar at his home on Long Island.
While studying the West African Fat-tailed Gecko on the outskirts of a small village in Benin, he heard the sounds of drums in the distance, punctuated with chants and songs. The music and singing were compelling, but he was wary of approaching because he was a stranger. A group of elders allowed him to observe and photograph a female secret society initiation rite of the Fon people.
In the decades since his first trip, he has traveled back and forth between his adopted home in Africa and his present home on Long Island, New York. Though Miller’s home in Africa is on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, he spends much of his time in Dan villages. He has many friends he returns to see, and over the years he has experienced and observed the everyday life of the villagers. Images include the colorful world of Liberian children, village elders and the Sande Society girls from the town of Dwazahn, who are portrayed going through their rites of passage. More than 45 of his photographs will be exhibited in A Liberian Sojourn, at the QCC Art Gallery, opening on October 8 and running until December 8, 2015.
“I look forward to meeting visitors of many backgrounds and cultures who come to see my exhibit as Africa remains one of the least known continents of the world,” said Miller, who noted that this is the largest exhibition of his photographs to date.
While in residence in Liberia through the 70s and 80s, the period during which these photographs were made, Miller created portraits of female coming-of-age initiates of the secret Sande society, a powerful all woman group known to wear “Bundu” masks during rituals, probably the only known instance of women wearing masks in all of Africa. Miller collected a great deal of the once used Bundus no longer suitable for rituals. Several of the Bundus will be exhibited as well as other objects used in Liberia secret society rituals.
Another significant feature of the display is the aesthetically complex body decoration of the initiates who daily repaint themselves in unique patterns representing a meaningful language known only to initiates.
Before attending Yale University, Charles Miller III visited Africa for the first time during the summer of 1968. He returned there in the early 1970s visiting Maroc, Senegal, Mali, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria, residing for extended periods in Cameroon and Liberia.
His travels, first supported by his family, were followed by his acceptance in the exclusive Five- Year BA-BS/MPH Program at Yale University, enabling him to live in Cameroon. He also received grants from, among others, The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Carnegie Foundation, Sigma Xi, and The Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.
In Liberia, as a naturalist specializing in West African flora and fauna, he was invited to establish a national zoological and botanical park that was inaugurated on the occasion of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Conference held in Monrovia in 1979, a valued Liberian destination for visiting heads of state.
Miller will attend the opening of the exhibit at the QCC Art Gallery and will be available to answer questions posed by students and other visitors.