African, folk art collection at home in Natchez

NATCHEZ, Miss. — John and Pam Finley did not lose a home to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but many of their possessions did.

NATCHEZ, Miss. — John and Pam Finley did not lose a home to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but many of their possessions did. The Finleys were housing a collection of west African and African-American folk art in the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi when the building was destroyed by the storm. Pam Finley said after the horrific storm left the Gulf Coast a virtual ghost town, she was forced to find a new home for the collection. "Katrina put a barge on top of the museum," she said. "And they had to scale back the rebuilding plans for the museum because there just wasn’t any money. So they asked us to pick up the collection. Now they are only going to have (George Ohr) and maybe local artists in the museum." So the Finleys, with the help of several volunteers, packed up the collection and drove it to their home in New Mexico. But the collection is no longer homeless. The nearly 300-piece collection has found a new home inside the NAPAC Museum on Main Street in Natchez. While Finley said the building is a perfect home for her family’s collection, it was only by chance that she and her husband discovered Natchez. "Thanks to a Greg Iles book, I heard about Natchez," Finley said. "I lived in New Orleans, but I had never been here, but it sounded like somewhere we would like and the two of us took a trip." It was on that trip that the Finley’s saw the NAPAC building and almost immediately the wheels started turning on how to get the collection to Natchez. Finley said she approached NAPAC Director Darrell White and Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton about possibly moving the art collection to Natchez. "This belongs in the South," Finley said. "It is at home here." The Finleys collection began with the acquisition of a large number of pieces of African art but soon grew to include more contemporary folk art. "We love (the African art), but the house started getting dark because that is the nature of their art," Finley said. "So we started collecting the folk art to add some color. It really brightened things up." More than just complementary colors, Finley said the addition of the folk art and displaying the two collections together presents a full history of African-American culture. "Many people ask ‘What are my roots? Where do my genes come from,’" Finley said. "For some of these people, they had those roots severed at some point. With this collection, it presents a full circle of history from West African beginnings to African-American culture. "With the exception of their music, many times, their culture was lost." The collection now being housed at NAPAC features a variety of masks, figures, clothing, textiles, furniture and folk paintings. Finley said one of her favorite pieces is a stool with the base carved to look like a man. Finley said she is impressed with the detail in the pieces, especially considering the fact that they were all created before the invention of power tools. "You can see the wrinkles in his forehead," Finley said. "You don’t see Ethan Allen making anything like that." But even more than the details in the carvings or the assembly of pieces, Finley said the purpose of the pieces is what is really important to her. She said unlike modern art that is meant to mainly decorate, the pieces in her collection are meant to teach morals and provide protection and safety. One headpiece in the collection was used in ceremonies to teach young boys the dangers of having sex with their sisters, Finley said. The message was if a boy was to have sex with his sister, he would turn into the creature depicted in the mask. "You can imagine in the ceremony by fire light, that would look pretty scary and probably be pretty convincing," she said. Other pieces were specifically designed to ward off evil and provide protection, she said. One such piece is the Ejagham Power Board from Nigera that displays animal skulls and bones. Finley said the piece had a dual purpose — to scare women and children away from secret meetings and to ward away evil spirits and protect families. And, she said, though they are thousands of miles away from their homeland, the pieces are still providing protection — the collection has survived at least two disasters. A fire that did substantial damage to their house and a neighbor’s house in New Orleans did not harm any pieces in the collection. Likewise, each piece was also left undisturbed by Hurricane Katrina. "They are doing their job," she said. ______ Copyright 2009 Associated Press, The Natchez Democrat. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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