Dr. Alan “Rico” Rich points to his favorite object in the collection of African and Oceanic art that he and his wife, Linda, acquired over the years. It is an imposing 4-foot tall wooden figure, carved from a single piece of wood, painted and embellished with woven grass and shells, given to him by the chief of the Iatmul people of New Guinea. It represents the ancestors of the tribe, bearing both male and female characteristics, and its face is marked in a distinctive design that displays the tribal or family name.
It was 1987, and Dr. Rich was on one of many charitable medical missions he made to impoverished areas around the world. An ophthalmologist and eye surgeon, he had performed a procedure that restored the sight of the chief, who had gone blind and had no access to scientific medicine. In gratitude, the chief took him to the “spirit house,” where the tribe’s sacred objects were kept and asked him to choose a figure. The gift was as precious as if Dr. Rich had been given a treasured family religious heirloom.
“I didn’t want to accept it, but he insisted,” Dr. Rich said.
As Linda Rich recalls, they carefully carried the figure to a waiting canoe that took them away on a river they shared with crocodiles.
The figure is just one of dozens of objects now on display at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, in a new permanent exhibition, “Spirits: Ritual and Ceremonial African and Oceanic Art from the Dr. Alan and Linda Rich Collection.” The Riches donated more than 100 pieces from their collection to the Polk Museum following the success of a 2019 show of the objects there.
The collection consists of masks, headdresses (or “chiwaras”) and figurines from several African countries and New Guinea, all used in indigenous religious practices. The name of the exhibition, “Spirits,” was suggested by Linda Rich as a theme that connects the objects from peoples as varied as the Yoruba, the Ashanti and the Masai.
The objects are used in rituals or ceremonies to evoke the spirits that are believed to inhabit the material world. Linda Rich, who was an occupational therapist and assisted her husband in his practice, points to a favorite pair of pieces, intricately carved wooden chiwaras of male and female antelope, used in a ritual dance by the Bambara people of Mali to encourage the antelope god to provide plentiful herds. She noted circular lines on the chiwaras that represent millet growing.
“They believe the chiwaras have a fierce power and magic. It’s a very simple belief system: ask, believe, receive,” she said. “They have deep beliefs in spirit gods.”
The pieces also have a natural artistry. They are fashioned from wood and other native materials by tribal artisans whose training was handed down over many generations. It was this uncomplicated art that drew Alan Rich to the objects.
“These are just guys who had the talent to do the artwork. Their fathers taught them to do these articles for the ceremonies. There is no ‘art for art’s sake’ here,” he said.
Although independent of Western artistic traditions, the art of indigenous and first-nation peoples has nonetheless had an influence beyond its original bounds. Picasso’s groundbreaking 1907 cubist work, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” was painted after seeing a display of African masks in Paris.
“There was a time when ‘primitive’ was used to describe these objects,” said H. Alexander Rich, executive director and chief curator of the Polk Museum, and no relation to Alan and Linda Rich. “All anyone has to do is spend some time in this gallery to see there’s nothing primitive about it. That’s a Western concept.”
Alan Rich said his interest in African art “all started innocently enough.” Now retired after a long career in eye care, including almost 40 years at Watson Clinic, he began making trips overseas in the 1960s with medical charity organizations, driven by a desire to improve the quality of life of others and an interest in geography and different cultures. He spent weeks or months in countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Ghana and Tanzania, in addition to countries in Asia and Latin America. He got to know people intimately.
“Everywhere we went they had zero eye care,” he said. “I was invited into homes. A lot of these objects were gifts. As often as not, I traded stuff for them. I’m glad I carried a lot of clothes.”
He indicated a Masai shaman’s mask from a trip to Tanzania.
“The shaman had a couple of masks I liked. He wanted my jeans and a polo shirt. I said, ‘You got it, pal,’” he said.
The display in Western museums of indigenous objects has been controversial, especially if the objects were acquired through seizures or colonial policies. Alex Rich said he had no reservations about showing the Riches’ collection because of the way it was acquired.
“We did do our legwork. Rico has acquired these things in a caring manner,” he said. “It speaks to how life-changing his work was. … We didn’t want to do a typical African and Oceanic art show. Part of this is the story of Rico’s work that really enhances the whole experience.”
The exhibition resides in a gallery on the museum’s first floor, formerly occupied by the Taxdal collection of pre-Columbian artifacts. Alex Rich said the Taxdal collection, which was one of the museum’s earliest acquisitions, has been stored and will be displayed again in the future. The gallery was opened up and redesigned for the “Spirits” exhibition, part of a larger renovation project the museum is undergoing, Alex Rich said.
A future addition to the exhibition will be a video monitor that shows photos of the Riches interacting with the people they treated and got to know, as well as videos of some of the dances and rituals in which the objects were used. The Riches insisted on the educational aspect of the exhibition and said they hope the exhibition will expand the horizons of the people who see it.
“We hope it inspires people to want to travel, or perhaps to go into medicine … maybe start their own art collections,” Linda Rich said.
“It could be a new experience,” Alan Rich added. “It will likely be the first exposure of some people to African and Oceanic art.”