In 1998, WPU Galleries acquired the Joan and Gordon Tobias Collection of African and Oceanic Art, 530 objects amassed over a 35-year period for their aesthetic and ethnographic value. The African art consists of bodily adornment objects, ritual use objects, and functional objects. Approximately 300 African items represent over 20 different ethnic groups in Sub-Saharan Africa. Highlights include a large wooden D’mba headdress that resembles a female bust and was worn by the Baga peoples of the Guinea coast. Another significant object is an “antelope” crest mask worn in harvest ceremonies performed by the Bamana peoples in Mali. The collection also includes an impressive Nkisi Nkondi figure, encrusted with sacrificial materials and originating from the Republic of Congo.
The Oceanic art is similar in content, containing ceremonial, adornment, and household objects. These objects represent over 20 different ethnic groups from Oceania, New Guinea, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Significant objects include the “suspension hook” sculptures and yipwon figures carved by the peoples of the Middle Sepik Region of Papua New Guinea, produced as war and hunting deities. The collection also includes 27 miscellaneous ethnographic objects from Bolivia, China, Peru, and Venezuela.
The Tobias Collection largely conveys the visual and cultural traditions of the vast and varied continent of Africa and the islands of the Pacific. The ritual objects and bodily ornamentation were often integrated with music and dance in ceremonies such as initiation rites, courtship and marriage ceremonies, spirit and ancestor worship, and seasonal and harvest festivals. Within this context, they conveyed distinct and complex spiritual beliefs. Other objects were used in daily living and demonstrate the distinct agrarian and hunting practices of tribal communities. Furthermore, the objects reveal innovation and creativity in form, pattern, and style; reflecting the skillfulness and sophistication of sculptors, weavers, potters, metal workers and other artisans. Together, these objects have ideological, spiritual, and aesthetic value that exemplifies the histories and philosophies of the African continent and the Pacific islands and further the understanding of these cultures and histories.