African experiences affect art

Photos by the artist

Photos by the artist

April 22, 2007|By JULIE E. GREENE

Keedysville artist Rhonda Smith's "Talisman for the Journey" exhibit at the Washington County Arts Council Gallery is the result of her trips to Africa's Ivory Coast in 1996 and to Mali in 2003.

Smith used what she learned about local culture and crafts such as pots, baskets and carved sculptures to come up with works tied to the philosophies and ideas of the African people she met in rural villages.

Several pieces inspired by her trips are on exhibit and available for purchase through Saturday, May 26, at the gallery at 14 W. Washington St. in downtown Hagerstown.

An opening reception and chance to meet Smith will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. today.

The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and by appointment.


Smith, 54, coordinates the printmaking and drawing program at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va. The art department encourages artists to travel and gather information and resources to create art, she said.

Several of her works involve African symbols and talismans, the latter of which were particularly popular in Mali, Smith said. The men wore necklaces with small copper, brass or silver boxes that contained a prayer.

"The prayer is to protect them or guide them through their life's journey," Smith said.

While the talismans are apparent to everyone because they are visible, people don't necessarily know they are talismans nor do they know all there is to know about that particular talisman, she said.

Smith said she was drawn to the idea of the talisman - something people see and know about but that contains a secret no one except the wearer knows.

Women of the Fulani, a nomadic group in Africa, express their wealth in gold jewelry. When a woman's family cannot afford real gold, the women weave straw into chains and amulets featuring the same designs as gold jewelry, Rhonda Smith said. "The Fulani Weave Straw Into Gold" is a collage of a map of northern Africa, a graphite drawing of a weave and a pencil drawing of a straw amulet Smith bought in Mali. The amulet features an "eye." In Egypt, wearing an image of an eye repels evil spirits, Smith said.

To create "May Smiles Await on All Your Journeys," Rhonda Smith scanned separate pieces of artwork she created - two watercolors, colored pencil drawings, small amulets and a photo of small folded airplanes she made with maps - and arranged them into the final work on a computer. The background watercolor at the bottom is a landscape featuring a crossroads, a place in both African and American culture where decisions are made and destinies can be decided, Smith said.

"Charmed," like "Dancing on a Golden Thread," above left, is a mixed-media piece featuring a magnifying glass zooming in on a watercolor. Carrots, which represent lures or rewards, are a common theme in Rhonda Smith's work.

Rhonda Smith said she was thinking of Sept. 11 when she created "Substituting Lies for Truth, Death for Life and Hatred for Love." A chameleon, an African symbol of primal knowledge, rides the back of a snake, an African symbol for a messenger of good or evil. "Maybe we are able to see it or not see it for who it is," Smith said of the chameleon.

Smith used various items such as maps, stamps, miniature paper airplanes, beads, threads and fabric to create these personal talismans, which can be purchased for $45 each. They are among about 75 talismans that Rhonda Smith created from plastic Cesar dog food containers saved by her husband, Skip Wiggs, when their cockapoo, Rosin, finished with them. Talismans are common in Africa, where she visited in 1996 and 2003.

"Bucket of Promises" is a mixed-media collage featuring etching (the snake and dark background on the right), an application of gold leaf (carrots) and colored pencil (the bucket). Carrots, often used as lures for animals and metaphorically for people, represent promise. The snake is a messenger that is both revered and feared. The bucket represents the idea of a glass being half full or half empty, Rhonda Smith said. The snake's message could be interpreted as be aware or beware the promises to come, Smith said.

Lots of cultures tie ribbon and thread to items as a prayer, Rhonda Smith said. Here, Smith dangles stacked fabric from a twig in "Dancing on a Golden Thread."

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