In 2011, John and Pam Finley were looking for a museum where their collection of nearly 200 West African object and African-American folk art could be appreciated by a new audience.
They found that museum on the high plains of Wyoming. With its connections to the academic and public communities as well as its developing ethnographic collections, including a recent addition of objects from Papua New Guinea, the University of Wyoming Art Museum became an ideal location for the Finleys’ collection. A selection of pieces from the rich cultural collection will be on exhibit from June 8-Aug. 17.
The Finleys began their collection with the African objects, working closely with reputable dealers and purchasing from established auction houses. The couple’s interest in African art came from the belief that objects have meaning beyond general aesthetics, and that they were created to teach morals and provide protection and safety. For example, the collection includes a beautiful example of a Chi-wara headdress from Mali. The headdress resembles a stylized antelope-type figure, the mythical being that introduced agriculture to the Bamana people. Chi-wara dances were performed at harvest ceremonies to assure abundant crops and fertility.
The collection later grew to include contemporary folk art from the New Orleans region, near Mrs. Finley’s hometown.
The two collections dovetail beautifully in presenting a fuller history and understanding of African-American culture.
Exploring the range of artistic expression by self-taught African-American artists from the South, the folk art collection includes several works by Mose Tolliver, who is known for his vibrantly colored watermelons, birds and figures. Adding to his raw, self-taught style, he frequently used house paint on cardboard, wood, metal and Masonite. Passing down the tradition, Tolliver taught his daughter to duplicate his signature style and she also developed into an acclaimed artist.
The Finleys’ collection is on long-term loan to the UW Art Museum, whose ethnographic collection is anchored by Native American art and Rapa Nui objects from Easter Island.