Museum volunteer Jacqueline Kakembo and owner Doris Ligon in front of a large African mask at the African Art Museum of Maryland. (Photo by Lisa Snowden-McCray)
Doris Ligon doesn’t know how she first developed a love for African art – but she is glad she did.
“It would be nice if I said one day I just woke up and there was a cloud shaped like Africa and I heard somebody saying ‘Doris, Doris’ but that would not be the truth. I was not positive at all about Africa.”
The 79-year-old Baltimore native founded the African Art Museum of Maryland along with her husband Claude, back in 1980. Claude passed away in 2005, but Doris kept the doors of the museum open. Now she and the museum’s Board of Trustees are celebrating their 36th year.
Ligon said that when she was growing up, it was rare to find positive reflections of Africa in the media.
“Everything that I knew about Africa was a negative thing from the movies, and all of that. So I knew nothing positive about the African continent.”
“I don’t know anybody…who was running around talking about ‘Africa my home.’”
She said that her interest was piqued when she spotted a book about African art while out shopping one day, and bought it.
“Little by little, I remember thinking, if all this stuff I hear about Africa is true, all this negative stuff, how come people keep going and keep coming back unscathed? What is it about Africa?”
She grew even closer to the subject while taking an art class at Howard County Community College, where she lives. She said the teacher told the class that they could write about any aspect of art they wanted. Ligon chose the subject of African art on a whim. After that, she volunteered to be a docent at the National Museum of African Art.
She said the idea of starting a museum became a nagging thought that wouldn’t go away.
“Little by little, I developed this curiosity and I fought it the whole way because my children where grown and I was foot loose and fancy free. I was having luncheons and going on luncheons and having lectures and all that. It was a lot more fun to talk about starting a museum.”
Today, the museum is open Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. They host jazz events, children’s activities, trips to different African countries and go into local schools to educate local children about African art. However, they are a very small establishment.
“Right now I am the director, I am the registrar, I am the education department, I am the human relations department and I’m also the maintenance,” Ligon said.
The museum was first in Columbia, then later moved to its current home in Fulton, Md. Inside, visitors can see all kinds of art and artifacts – from tiny, elaborately carved pieces of ivory jewelry to a woven mask that is as tall as the room it is housed in.
She said that the museum actually owns over 3,000 pieces of art and artifacts – but can only showcase a fraction of that inside the small space.
Ligon said it’s not always easy to tell what is an actual African piece, and what is a fake. She relies on her years of experience and her Master’s in Art History from Morgan State University to tell her.
“You might want to be a medical doctor. You might have an inspiration to be a medical doctor. But you know just by wanting to be a medical doctor you can’t operate on people. You have to go to school. You’ve got to learn,” she said.
Longtime volunteer Jacqueline Kakembo said that she has been helping out with the museum for so long because of all the good work Ligon does – especially the way Ligon reaches out to both African Americans and Africans living in the area.
The museum always gets tons of phone calls from people looking to come visit in February for Black history month. The museum does not actually focus on African American art – just African – but Kakembo said that the connection is there because Africa is where African Americans began.
“This is a very integral part of our history,” said Kakembo. “I’m so proud of what she does.”
Learn more about the museum at africanartmuseum.org.