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African statues convey messages of equality and spirituality

A deeper look into the colors and history of African art

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Published : 2012-12-18 18:41
Updated : 2012-12-18 18:41

Following is part of a series exploring unique museums, collections and the passionate collectors behind them. ― Ed.


Africa is the second largest and second-most populated continent in the world with more than 2,000 known languages. The continent itself is filled with immeasurable diversity in culture, people and languages ― and the art is no exception.

In 1989, while studying in Madrid, Kwang Jung-Hae discovered a small African statue as he wandered around the El Rastro open air flea market. So began his interest in African art.

“I have been engrossed in African art for over 20 years,” said Kwang, a doctor of philosophy and the director of the Africa Museum of Art in Seoul. “The colors of Africa are simply vibrant, with brilliant whites and even brilliant blacks.” 
Collections of African statues on display at the Africa Museum of Art in Seoul.

Kwang has traveled to the continent more than 50 times searching, learning and discovering his passion for African art. The collector has amassed around 600 pieces from all over the continent including Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Gabon, Ghana, Benin, Chad, Mali and more.

With some African languages having no written alphabet, art can be used as a symbolic means of communication.

“In Africa, the colors have many meanings,” he said. “The figure’s style, design and colors are like their alphabet.” The color white represents God, while red is the color that represents human beings and the fires and passions of life.

“When you watch TV and you see African people with their faces painted white, it does not mean white men,” he said. “It means to live together with God.

“They (the people of Africa) believe in spiritual existence, of finding spirituality in the nature of human beings. This is clear through the appearance of many human figures in African sculptures and drawings.”

The collector sees African art as a symbol of tolerance and a representation of equality between the social classes and gender. “I collect African art because there is no division,” he said.

Kwang remembers an unforgettable moment during one of his flights in the Congo that changed his perception and understanding of the African people. While sitting in the plane, he looked up and noticed a man who looked very ill and infected, with bloody scabs covering his arms, boarding the plane. His first reaction was that people would refuse to sit next to the man out of fear or disgust, but in fact, it was quite the contrary.

“I remember one person said to me, ‘Human beings are the same, sick or not, the mind is the same,’” he recalled.

“People with their eyes half closed or half open frequently appear in African art or sculptures,” he said. “If these eyes are wide open, people can see all what should not be seen, confusing their hearts and so they see the world with their eyes half closed.”

When visiting the continent, he often wanders from village to village scouring for antiques. Refusing to ship his precious finds or leave them unattended when traveling around the villages, he carries his pieces in his carry-on luggage, and in some cases carries large statues and pieces on his back.

However, obtaining these artifacts is becoming increasingly difficult for the 20-year collector.

“Almost five years ago, a small village starting using the Internet and sold its art collections to a large gallery through auctions,” he said laughing. “So antiques are getting harder to find.”

Amongst some of the treasures in his varied collection is a cup sculpture from the Bamun tribe in Cameroon depicting a man on all fours with a curved, bullhorn-shaped tail. The detailed carvings on the tail, with the head of the horn carved partially into the head of a reptile, are meant to depict the millions of years of evolution.

“This shows the evolution of human beings through the absorption of other life forms,” he said. “The sculpture defines the role of a leader who realizes the roots of his tribe and the meaning of life apart from the practical world.”

The Africa Museum of Art displays around 80 pieces of Kwang’s art collection and also includes an outdoor lounge section where visitors can see, touch and physically enjoy selected art pieces and African musical instruments.

“I want people to touch these figures, I want them to feel the African mind,” he said. “My museum may be very small, but the quality is very high.”

The museum is open every day, except Tuesdays, from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The museum is located in Sagan-dong, Jongno-gu. Admission is 2,000 won for children and 3,000 won for adults.

By Julie Jackson (juliejackson@heraldcorp.com)

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