A new image: Student helps SAM correct its collection of Maasai art

E-mail E-mail this article
Print Print this article
There's a headdress bedecked with ostrich feathers in storage at the Seattle Art Museum that's supposed to represent part of the authentic garb of a Maasai warrior from southern Kenya.

When Kakuta Hamisi first laid eyes on it during an internship at the museum two years ago, he was astonished.

"I just started laughing," recalls Hamisi, a Kenyan studying at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.

Maybe the "absolutely fake"-looking headdress came from a souvenir shop in Kenya, he thought, but it surely didn't come from a real Maasai village.

Maasai exhibit

"A Maasai Community Adorns a Bride" is an ongoing exhibit in the third-floor African Art galleries at the Seattle Art Museum, 100 University St., Seattle.

About Maasai society

For more information about Maasai society, the village of Merrueshi and Kakuta Hamisi_s art project, visit his Web site, www.maasai-infoline.org.

Neither, it seemed, did a blue-beaded necklace that Hamisi remembers finding in the museum's African art collection. "You would never use those beads in Maasai society," he said.

Hamisi should know. He is a Maasai.

And there wasn't much use in arguing, since many pieces in the Maasai collection at the museum were poorly documented. Even the curator for the African art collection, Pam McClusky, said she had no idea about the headdress until Hamisi brought it to her attention.

In his own way, Hamisi has steered the Seattle Art Museum toward a more conscientious approach to collecting, documenting and displaying African objects, at least where the somewhat isolated and misunderstood Maasai culture of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania is concerned.

With Hamisi's help, the museum is experimenting with inviting the insiders of a particular culture to collect exhibition pieces that best reflect that culture.

The museum, at Hamisi's request, funded a project allowing him to return to his village of Merrueshi to collect items offered from locals' personal belongings, including jewelry for traditional bridal costumes, accessories for men's attire and objects used by village elders.

First exhibit is on display

The first display of work from that project, "A Maasai Community Adorns a Bride," began last week.

It's a precursor to a larger exhibition, "Long Steps Never Broke a Back - Art from Africa in America," planned for February 2002. That show will feature most of the 60 or so pieces Hamisi brought back and will explore the use of local collaboration to create more honest collections and displays on Africa.

"What he tried to do was provide a profile of a people in four stages of life and what they'd have with them," McClusky said of Hamisi's effort. "He was really masterful, I think."

The project broke new ground for the museum, which basically funded Hamisi's idea without knowing what objects it would get in return.

Because the Maasai don't use a monetary currency and don't embrace the notion of selling domestic objects as "art," Hamisi, the village elders and representatives from the art museum agreed on a unique compensation arrangement.

The museum donated $10,000 toward completion of an unfinished grade school in Merrueshi. The three-room school's construction in 1999 turned into one big community-development project, with participation from children on up to village elders. It now has three teachers and an enrollment of about 60 students.

Ambassador between worlds

Hamisi, a tall, slim, affable man, with coffee-brown skin, is roughly 26. The Maasai don't record and celebrate birthdays, so his exact age is unknown. But he carries himself as if he has an entire society on his shoulders. In a way, he does.

Hamisi was trained to be a warrior, or moran, as a teenager, but in 1995 he decided to attend college in the United States, which no one else in his community had done. He completes his final semester at Evergreen State this month and plans to attend law school. In the meantime, he has become an ambassador of sorts between his world and the art world.

The reason for the shortcomings in the museum's Maasai collection became obvious to Hamisi after he watched documentaries of Maasai culture produced by Westerners, reviewed some published work on the Maasai and read the journal of noted U.S. art collector Katherine White. She left an impressive stash of 2,000 Maasai objects to the museum when she died in 1981 but didn't interact much with the people who sold her the items.

Collection stirred debate

White's gift actually was a huge blessing and a defining moment for SAM: The collection helped build the museum's reputation as a truly international institution, McClusky said.

How much it illuminated the Maasai and their way of life is open to debate, as many of the objects, small items generally used as personal adornments, came with scant background information.

Knowledge about West African art - which features more masks, sculptures and large items - is quite extensive by comparison.

Quality books and documentaries focusing on the nomadic Maasai people, featuring interviews and in-depth descriptions of their way of life, can be hard to find, Hamisi said.

"It's all about exoticism," he said. "They are presented in the same way as animals from a distance."

The more pressing issue for the Maasai is this: The lands they occupy in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya are shrinking year by year, as the Nairobi government confiscates traditional nomadic lands for public projects.

Hamisi's project helps clarify aspects of Maasai society at a time when their homes and customs are threatened.

Hamisi not only collected art for the museum, he identified and interviewed village people, took photographs and shot video footage of village residents describing their contributions to the collection, giving the exhibit a more intimate and personal tone.

Help with arranging exhibits

Hamisi also advised exhibit organizers on how to properly layer the many necklaces and ornaments that brides are given to celebrate their marriages, and, in effect, their coming of age. The bridal costume currently on display at the museum includes some 20 beaded necklaces and represents the attire for a girl between 10 and 16.

The collection seems alive with the spirit of the people who just months ago kept and used these objects in their own homes.

"I have a deep connection with this art," Hamisi said of the items he brought from Merrueshi. "I can't even put a value on it."

Tyrone Beason's voice message number is 206-464-2251 and his e-mail address is tbeason@seattletimes.com.