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Out of Africa

The history museum celebrates the many cultures of sub-Saharan Africa.

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One ancient artist had a lot on his mind.
  • One ancient artist had a lot on his mind.
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to nearly three dozen cultures, each with its own language, habitats, and customs. Senenkunya: Many Voices, One Family, which opens Saturday at the Museum of Natural History, takes on the arduous task of documenting each of those different tribes. Featuring more than 100 artifacts placed within re-created village settings, the exhibit tells the stories and histories of the indigenous people.

"We didn't want this to be linear," says organizer Marie Graf. "We didn't want people going from here to here to here." The result is a busy, overstuffed space full of sculptures, carvings, textiles, masks, and weapons. The core collection belongs to Williard Harper, an 80-year-old Cleveland professor whose many trips abroad yielded various "souvenirs." A longtime employee of the United Nations, he has assembled a collection that includes statues, lutes, huts, and more from Nigeria, Mali, Congo, and West Senegal. "This is about village concepts," Graf says. (Senenkunya describes the Malian custom of promoting goodwill among diverse tribes.) "How do these people live? And why do they live the way they do? There's a desert, and there's a forest, and there's all environments [in between]."

Fabricated council houses, granaries, mosques, and trading centers are set up throughout the museum, giving the exhibit a sense of place and purpose. "We created a composite village, and through that, we talk about oral tradition and religion, and how they affected trade and development in the area. It's all the different things that go into a community life." Workshops, a photography exhibit, hands-on activities, and a lecture by Harper are planned throughout Senenkunya's run. Even the planetarium is going Mali, with a Western African-themed show that focuses on the skies over the region.

"I hope people walk out of here with an appreciation for the richness of the many cultures in Africa," Graf says.

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