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An African art object, part of the promised gift from Drs. Carolyn and Eli Newberger. (Courtesy Williams College Museum of Art)

Williams College Museum of Art to Receive Landmark Gift of African Art

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Drs. Carolyn and Eli Newberger have donated a collection to WCMA.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College Museum of Art has been gifted more than 340 objects of African art from Drs. Carolyn and Eli Newberger. The collection includes works from the late 19th through late 20th century and represents numerous cultures from West Africa with decorative, religious and utilitarian objects.

In 1967, Carolyn, Eli and their infant daughter Mary Ellen began two years of service with the Peace Corps, living in the capital city Ouagadougou in what is now Burkina Faso. They admired and appreciated the art around them and became friends with the director of the national museum, Toumani Triandé. Under Triandé's tutelage, they amassed a collection of quality and authenticity. They were interested in village artifacts and everyday objects that expressed the artistic vision of West African people. Utilitarian objects such as sandals made from tire tread, bowls, spades, textiles and door locks were given equal importance as ritual and iconic sculptures, masks, and figures. The collection includes works created by more than 15 different cultures including the Ashanti, Bamana, Baule, Bobo, Dogon, Igbo, Mossi, Peul, Senufo and Yoruba People.

"As new Berkshire residents and grandparents of a Williams College sophomore, we look forward through this gift to opening doors to scholarship on African life and culture," Carolyn Newberger said. "Eli and I hope the collection will aid in building bridges to a vibrant local African and African-American community."

"Not only does the collection contain important, fabulously iconic examples of Mossi art among others, but it also contains extremely rare and wonderful flashes of artistic individuality and interpretation within these iconic programs," said Assistant Professor of Art Michelle Apotsos. "It is this element that allows the objects to both communicate and operate on multiple social, cultural, and political levels."

A wood Chi Wara mask with a representation of Charles de Gaulle is one example of a work that communicates on multiple levels. It's a fascinating mix of spiritual tradition, political history and artistic ingenuity. The Chi Wara masquerade itself is meant to honor the mythic Chi Wara beast, part antelope, part crocodile, part anteater, part human creature that originally lived in the earth. When mankind first emerged, the species did not know how to feed or sustain itself, so the Chi Wara took pity on man, emerged from the earth, and taught man how to farm by digging in the dirt. The Chi Wara masquerade is celebrated every year during the harvest period.

"This generous gift greatly expands WCMA's collection of African art and will be incredibly valuable not only in teaching but also in showing art that is politically, socially and culturally relevant," said Class of 1956 Director Christina Olsen. "We are grateful to Carolyn and Eli for their vision and generosity."

Carolyn Newberger is an artist, child psychologist at Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, as well as a musician whose deep concerns for people and their lives drive her work. As a psychologist, Carolyn developed an influential theory of parental consciousness that continues to frame family studies and efforts to prevent child abuse.

Eli Newberger is a pediatrician and an accomplished tuba player and jazz pianist. He is a leading figure in the movement to improve the protection and care of children and is renowned for his ability to bring together good sense and science on the main issues of family life. An author of many influential works on child abuse, he teaches at Harvard Medical School and founded the Child Protection Team and the Family Development Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

Fifty years ago the Newbergers began two years of service in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso, then called Upper Volta. Eli was a physician to a group of 44 Peace Corps volunteers and directed their maternal and child health program. Carolyn participated in an early childhood education program in a rural village near the capital, Ouagadougou.

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