The Museum of African Culture in Portland (formerly known as The Museum of African Tribal Arts) is a Maine treasure. The museum houses a unique collection of sub-Saharan arts and is one of a kind in New England. Some of the artifacts on display are still used by shamans in religious ceremonies and divination practice, and are on display in the museum for educational purposes. The collection consists mainly of wooden African ceremonial masks, sacred items and artifacts, some centuries old.
The collection depicts a history of the tribal use of arts and crafts for religious purposes, mostly unknown in the Western world. These are living objects (animate) and represent mysterious practices unknown to the uninitiated. My first exposure to the museum was meeting Oscar Mokeme, the Museum Director, a shaman and tribal chief from Nigeria, when he performed an African ceremonial marriage for a couple in Garland. The ceremony was outdoors on a warm fall afternoon on a lawn surrounded by trees in colorful leaves.
The friends and family present at the ceremony were reminded by Shaman Mokeme that a marriage is everyone's responsibility. We all have a stake in its success. Mokeme said to the couple that everyone at the ceremony should be available to them in times of trial as their relationship grows.
Different aspects of the community were honored. The oldest person in the group was recognized. A Native American was asked to bless the event. The Shaman thanked the native people for permission to hold the ceremony on their homeland. The couple made their vows to respect and love each other.
Having made their vows, the couple kissed in the traditional way and faced the crowd. A reception followed at which friends and family from all over greeted each other and the newlyweds. There was food and drink and children ran around the yard and in and out of a tent setup with tables and chairs for guest to sit, eat and visit. Shaman Mokeme entered the tent changed wearing a tribal mask and costume, to bring healing and good tidings to the couple and group through rituals learned from his father. These scared dances and rituals are passed down through the generations in his tribe.
Mokeme had been employed in London by the Bank of Boston as an accountant when he was notified of a death in the family. His father had asked him to visit a museum in England, where he saw some of his grandfather's masks. He said something was roused in him when he saw these familial masks. His shamanistic heritage was awakened and felt called to do other work.
Mokeme's first mask was made when he was eleven years old and from the wood of his tree, the one planted in honor of his birth. His afterbirth had been buried under the newly planted tree. This mask was created especially for him, as he was next in line to become the village shaman.
The museum is a shrine of sacred ceremonial and tribal arts and is Mokeme's message of healing from his tribe to the people of Portland and New England. The museum is an educational center offering workshops and guided tours with prior notice. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday 10:30 – 4:00 and on Saturdays 12:30 – 4:00. It is located in Portland's Art District at 122 Spring Street between Park and High Streets. The museum can be reached at (207) 871-7188 or on the Internet go to: www.tribalartmuseum.com.