Doris Ligon may be Baltimore born and bred, but she can't seem to get her mind off Africa.
"I was in my 30s before I heard anything positive about Africa," recalls Ligon, 77, who, along with her late husband, Claude, opened the African Art Museum of Maryland in Columbia in 1980. Since 2011, the museum has held forth closer to Laurel, in cozy space in Maple Lawn, just off the lobby of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.
"In those days, it was called the Dark Continent. In 1980, I decided there was a need for more understanding. When we started, we were the only museum in the U.S. devoted to Africa," Ligon said.
The original and penetrating focus has not deviated. Nothing in the inventory speaks to European, American or Asian art. It's a one-note show steeped in the story of the world's oldest civilization.
Her obsession with Africa is easy to understand. Consider the facts: It is the world's second-largest continent, with 1.3 billion souls contained in an area that runs 5,000 miles, from the Mediterranean Sea in the north to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in the south.
Most of the 3,000 pieces of work, she reported, are in storage. Currently, 419 artifacts make up the total exhibit.
"Ninety-nine percent of my collection comes from white collectors [but] blacks are beginning to collect," Ligon said. The pieces, she remarked, typically come from those who have been assigned by agencies such as the State Department or Peace Corps to a country in Africa.
Ligon, who holds an undergraduate degree in sociology and a master's in musicology from Morgan State University, springs from her desk to take a visitor on a quick tour. With the boundless enthusiasm of a student on an archaeological dig, she reels off tidbits. There's a giant mask from Malawi that nearly touches the ceiling. Standing in its vast shadow, Ligon says "some masks are taller than this and this is almost 12 feet high." Performing with it involves slipping inside the 40-pound creation "and holding onto the bamboo frame," she said.
However, Ligon, who has journeyed numerous times to countries such as Ghana and Senegal, emphasized that donning a mask is not open to all comers; it's a privilege generally open only to men. The experience "sends a message to the people who understand the language of the mask. Wearing a mask for special occasions is based upon your reputation in the community."
There's much more in the collection, including a Yoruba throne from Nigeria, complete with beads that conceal the face of the king. Lesser humans, she remarked, "are not supposed to look directly on his face." An outsized door from the Baga people of Guinea, West Africa, represents fertility, traversing a parallel theme with the celebration following a robust rice harvest. The room also has a decorative chair fashioned in the Ivory Coast as a gift to the American ambassador to several African countries. A knock-your-socks-off tapestry, designed by Abdoulay Kasse, a master weaver from Senegal, captures the imagination.
There's also a 7-pound anklet worn by Liberian women as a sign of adornment.
Ligon said the nonprofit enterprise, which welcomes donations from the public, operates on a shoestring budget. Along with her role as the founder and director, she laughs, she "vacuums, dusts, sweeps and has other duties as assigned," and is supported by a group of volunteers. She also leads tours to Africa, presenting video presentations in an adjacent room in the museum, and led the campaign to integrate African culture into the elementary-school curriculum in the Howard County Public Schools.
"Some people call the art of Africa primitive," Ligon said. "We're telling the people there's a message in this object, placed in its indigenous setting
And as if to illustrate how the planet has grown more homogeneous, Ligon said the Mall in Columbia has a sister location: the Mall in Capetown, in South Africa. "Both were built by Mr. James Rouse."
The African Art Museum of Maryland, 11711 East Market Place, is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m,. and Sunday by appointment. Go to africanartmuseum.org.