Exhibition Review: Hall of African Peoples at the American Natural History Museum

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A recent visit to the American Museum of Natural History revealed how ancient African religions and artefacts have influenced the use and design of modern props.

Who?

Hall of African Peoples at the American Natural History Museum.

What?

A gallery of relics and curiosities visualising the philosophies and beliefs of an ancient world.

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Decisive Moment?

The Hall of African Peoples really struck me. It’s a showcase of objects that visualise the  economic, religious and cultural history of Africa.

There are ceremonial dresses, sculpted masks and domestic tools used for fishing, farming and hunting, as well as a series of dioramas. There are wonderfully crafted headdresses made from brightly coloured bird’s feathers, animal pelts fashioned into clothes and an amazing display of miniature cows!

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Which Artifact and Which Room?

I stumbled upon an eerie, enchanting sculpture floating in a cabinet. It was my favourite piece so if and when I have my own library it shall take center stage!

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Trend?

Discovery and perception:  it’s about utilising what you find to improve and alter the way in which a shoot or concept is conceived. 

Thoughts?

Popular visualisations of African spirits have influenced the works of a wide variety of people including writers, artists and filmmakers. Comparisons can be made between Marvel characters such as Mystique, a shapeeshifter with powers similar to the spirit Heitsi-Eibib  and Storm, whose power matches that of the god of thunder and lightening Jakuta.  Neil Gaiman’s book ‘American Gods’ is a novel which documents the journey of ancient spirits, from greek and African mythology who were once revered and are now searching for acceptance in a humanist world.

Even in modern day comedy series like the weird and wonderful Mighty Boosh, prop design and character formation are clearly influenced by ancient African culture.  Watch out for the character at the end of this clip, who bears a striking resemblance to Egungun the society dancer.

In Tim Burton’s 1993 film “A Nightmare Before Christmas,” the character design is beautifully paralleled to African religion and artefacts. The trick-or-treat trio ‘Lock, Stock & Barrel’s’ costumes mirror the texture, shape and form of the African spirit masks pictured above.

The Ghouls and ghosts of Halloween town and the souls that haunt young Vincent Malloy in Burton’s short film “Vincent’ are also born from the same design.

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