African Art Collection on Display at Ritz

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Born in Ghana of an African father and American mother, Baba Ishangi grew up in both worlds.

And for most of his 64 years, Ishangi has devoted himself to honoring the culture of his father's homeland by bringing that culture to the people of his mother's homeland.

Professionally, he has spent 40 years performing with the Ishangi African Dancers. And he has devoted the last four decades to assembling a collection of African art, beginning in 1961.

One of his earliest acquisitions, a staff from Cameroon, designed to be carried by a member of the royal court, is currently hanging on a wall at Jacksonville's Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum. It's part of an exhibit called "Africa's Living Arts: The Art of African Living," which Ishangi has curated. The exhibit, which will be at the Ritz through Aug. 13, consists of about 70 objects, the majority from Ishangi's personal collection. His collection is augmented by items from five Jacksonville collectors.

The idea for the exhibit, Ishangi said, came from a conversation he had with Ritz executive director Carol Alexander, who told him shortly after the Ritz opened that she hoped to bring an exhibit of African art to the Ritz.

"I have one," Ishangi told her.

In fact, he said, for about 20 years, he owned a small museum in Queens, N.Y., where he exhibited his personal collection.

The exhibit's subtitle -- "The Art of African Living" -- expresses the idea that all African art has a utilitarian purpose and an important symbolic meaning, Ishangi said. "It is not art for art's sake," he said. ". . . 'Africa's Living Arts' tells the story of the foundations of African culture and how that culture lives through every aspect of daily life."

The collection includes textiles, wood carvings, jewelry, leather goods, musical instruments, furniture and weapons, collected from Ghana, the Ivory coast, Senegal, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Zaire, Mali, Benin and Cameroon. There is even a small hut, in the style that would be found in the Ethiopian highlands, built by local craftsman Ron Starling.

Ishangi said his interest in studying and sharing his knowledge of African culture grew out of "a bad experience in school."

Raised in Philadelphia, he said he always thought there must be more to African culture than the primitive images he found portrayed in school books and in popular culture such as Tarzan movies. "It just didn't make sense," he said.

His goal, he said, is to unite, not divide, people. "Culture is one of the common denominators amongst all people," said Ishangi, who is a recipient of the U.N. World Peace Prize for Communications in Arts and Culture.

"I hope people get a new understanding and an enlightenment about African art and its true creative place on the globe," Alexander said.

HITTING HOME

"Africa's Living Arts: The Art of African Living" is scheduled to continue through Aug. 13. Hands-on workshops for students will be held during June and July. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for students and senior citizens. The museum address is 829 N. Davis St. For information call (904) 632-5555.

"Africa's Living Arts," which recently opened at the Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum, is just one of the Jacksonville museum exhibits worth visiting this summer. Here are some others:

MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND HISTORY On June 1, there will be an opening for MOSH's Allosaurus exhibit, which has been remodeled to make it more realistic. Also June 1, "Masters of the Earth, A Traveling Dinosaur Art Exhibit" will open. It's the work of local artist Joe Tucciarone. On June 25, MOSH will have a grand opening for the new Deep Sea Adventures exhibit. The exhibit will feature an underwater explorer vehicle, a diving bell and interactive kiosks. …