Masking the truth at the BMA

After reading the Baltimore Museum of Art's 400-word description of Liberia's Sande society — whose wooden masks are on now display in the renovated African Art gallery — you would be forgiven for thinking that the powerful social and political group was just a welcome wagon into womanhood for pre-teen girls.

The BMA describes the initiation into Sande as a sort of summer camp experience in which grown women spend two months in the woods teaching girls about personal care, ceremony and family life in preparation for marriage. When the Sande masks appear in a village, a girl "knows it's her turn to become a woman," museum literature reads, mentioning nothing — as reporter Mary Carole McCauley pointed out in a recent Sun story — about the likelihood that she will be barbarically mutilated in the process.


Roughly two thirds of Liberia's 16 influential Sande tribes, which give women standing in the community, embrace female circumcision — also known as "cutting" or, more aptly, "female genital mutilation" (FGM) — as a sacred rite of passage into adulthood for girls. Cultures that embrace FGM frequently believe that diminishing the possibility of sexual pleasure by removing all or part of the clitoris (sometimes along with other healthy external tissue), or ensuring pain by narrowing the vaginal opening, is a way to promote female fidelity and purity.

Most in the West consider it a human rights violation. The World Health Organization has been fighting to ban FGM in the nearly 30 African and Middle Eastern countries where it is practiced since 1997, calling it a reflection of "deep-rooted inequality between the sexes" and an "extreme form of discrimination." There are no health benefits to the procedure, and it can lead to infection, infertility and childbirth issues, in addition to the lessened quality of life.


One of the biggest barriers to ending FGM in Liberia is the secrecy surrounding it. The Sande swear their thousands of inductees to silence under the threat of death for the participants or their family members. The country's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has been largely mute on the subject despite her position as the first female elected head of state in Africa and having won the Nobel Prize in 2011 for her work on women's rights. And Mae Azango, a Liberian journalist who publicly exposed the practice in 2012, feared for her life for weeks after her article about it ran..

That's what makes the Baltimore Museum of Art's failure to acknowledge the practice in its cheery description of the Sande society masks collection so disturbing. They're contributing to the problem by papering over the reality.

Museum officials said that after much discussion and debate, they chose to focus their descriptions on the aesthetics of the Sande masks, worn by female performers during the initiation process and at other significant events. They specifically left out reference to FGM because it might upset museum visitors, they said, and couldn't adequately be explained in the 80 to 125 words typically included on an object label. They were also concerned about reducing a culture to a controversial procedure.

To that, we would say that the Michigan State University Museum managed to cover it in 24 relatively uncontroversial words: "The initiation includes the operation of clitoridectomy, an operation that is an important part of this transition, but a source of controversy to outsiders." We would think the BMA could do even better.

BMA officials said their docents are prepared to discuss FGM if asked, but they acknowledge that it's very unlikely they will ever be asked. They also said that the museum is in the process of hiring a new African art curator and would likely revisit the issue once that person is on board. We hope they do.

Art is not created in a vacuum, and it is frequently controversial. Art museums should be a safe space for dialogue about the items we're seeing and the background to their production. Pretending that the world is as we want it does not make it so. We would expect a museum, the keeper of history, to present and preserve the record, rather than edit it — especially when the subject is a current human rights violation.

While the Liberian government announced a temporary shutdown of the secret women's society initiation practices in 2012, on the heels of Ms. Azango's expose, many believe they still continue today.

That makes efforts to ban the practice all the more urgent. But first we all must acknowledge it.