Contributed by Bolin Shen '22 and Mehak Dhaliwal '22 in the December print edition of "The Spokesman." See the full "Spokesman" Volume 56 edition here.
What if we told you that a centuries-old piece of artwork so famous that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has covered it is currently located in our very own hallways?
The massive wooden headdress shown, measuring about four feet high by two feet wide, is an example of regional artistic traditions dating back to the 17th century. It is known as the D'mba, and was created and worn among the Baga cultures of Guinea coast, Africa. Historically, these headdresses have been worn in dances held at planting times and harvest celebrations, as well as at marriages, funerals, and ceremonies in honor of special guests.
Originally in the private collection of Isabella de la Houssaye, mother of five PDS alumni, the headdress was lent to Upper School Dean of Students and AP Art History teacher Dr. Elizabeth Monroe. It has been kept in her office for the past six years. This August, the D’mba headdress was offered to Director of the Anne Reid '72 Art Gallery, Jody Erdman. She says, “...in the past, the Anne Reid ‘72 Art Gallery has had four extraordinary exhibitions of works on loan of African and Asian cultures from [Isabella de la Houssaye’s] collection. The Baga D’mba was included in one of her exhibitions of African Art but it remained on loan after the exhibition was over until August, when she asked me if the school would like to keep it.” Considering factors like storage and preservation, PDS rarely ever acquires any artwork from outside of school, but Head of School Paul J. Stellato recently accepted the generous gift from Ms. de la Houssaye.
The D’mba has a fascinating history and unconventional iconography. It is illustrative of the role of females in Baga culture, symbolizing femininity and the universal mother. It is interesting to note that, instead of being representative of a spirit, which is common for masked representations from other African cultures, the Baga D’mba is more abstract in its portrayal of a woman at her zenith and height of power. The headdress is known as the inspiration for giving strength to young women and completing the roles they were assigned in society (raising children, inspiring the ancestors, etc.). In addition, it is remarkable through its very survival and preservation. In the late 19th century, with the growing popularity of Roman Catholicism, Baga culture became largely suppressed. Even after Guinea became independent in 1958, its government prohibitedt all non-Muslim religious practices and destroyed large amounts of artwork from the Baga people. Having endured the vicissitudes of socio-political upheaval, the headdress now stands witness to perseverance in the face of intolerance and aggression.
The D’mba presents Princeton Day School with a remarkable range of cross-divisional teaching opportunities and meaningfully intersects with a variety of our outreach and programming initiatives. During the short time the Baga headdress was displayed in the front hall of the school and in the gallery, it was a compelling source of fascination and a focal point for class discussions and projects. Now fully adopted by Princeton Day School, the sculpture will be a catalyst for experiential learning across all divisions.
For instance, given that the cotton cloth shawl added to the D’mba during performances was always imported from Europe, and never of African manufacture, history classes studying global trading networks or the European colonial presence will find the wooden headdress an exciting, physical manifestation of these otherwise remote concepts. Further testimony to the power similar objects as teaching tools from the “Currency and Costume in Pre-Colonial Africa” exhibition at the Anne Reid ‘72 Art Gallery is given by Acting Head of Upper School Chris Rhodes: “My ninth grade World Studies class visited the Africa exhibit during our unit on early civilizations. One of the central lessons of the unit was how the agricultural revolution allowed for the creation of larger, more complex and less egalitarian societies. The exhibit allowed the students to explore and think about job specialization, patriarchy, and social classes. The students quickly saw and understood how different dyes, styles of dress and ornamentation highlighted gender and class differences. It was a great mini field trip”.
The Baga D’mba will be a powerful expression of PDS’ commitment to diversity, sustainability, and global citizenship, not to mention our fostering of creativity in a range of forms. If displayed in the newly renovated spaces of Colross, for instance, with an informational plaque, one can easily imagine prospective families and students admiring the carving while appreciating our school’s emphasis on experiential learning. Newly invigorated programs, such as interdisciplinary teaching, will also benefit from having the sculpture easily accessible. As Dr. Monroe puts it, “PDS is incredibly fortunate to have received such a generous and impactful gift. This magnificent shoulder-headdress will resonate across all three divisions of our school as our students and teachers engage with it from almost innumerable perspectives - from the visual and performing arts, to our history, English, and Language courses. The power of the Baga Nimba stems from its immediacy; one cannot help but be entranced by it as an object, an embodiment of innumerable stories and relationships, a witness, and a catalyst.”
Photo: Composite photo of the Baga D'mba featured in "The Spokesman," courtesy of the Met Museum and Khan Academy.