ByWilka Murphy Grimes
Fitchburg Art Museum
As a student whose final mission was to complete the last few credits needed for a degree, I found myself on the hunt for a museum where I could be an intern. My passion as an anthropology major lies in artifacts, their history, and in the stories that unfold as one learns more about a culture. My search led me to the Fitchburg Art Museum. When I arrived there, I instantly sensed how involved this museum was with the community. The guards greeted everyone as if they were old friends, and they showed me the warmth of hosts welcoming a guest into their homes. This was different from any museum I had visited in the past where the guards were distant and the staff nowhere to be found. Here everyone was a friend.
They took me on as an intern, and before I knew it, my adventure had begun. I was going to work with Jean Borgatti in the African collections. Africa is a major interest of mine. I was thrilled. In the preparation room, where the African artifacts are stored temporarily, I found a piece that interested me. Writing about this piece turned out to be my first assignment. The piece came from Nigeria, made by the Igbo people. It looked like a bowl, and in the middle of the bowl, was something that reminded me ofa sarcophagus, an oval piece showing two men’s faces, looking up. Using“Igbo arts” as keywords, I found an artifactalmost identical to the one that was in the museum collections and identified it asan Igbo kola nut bowl. I realized that the faces were in fact a lid that covered a small compartment. How was this used?
To begin, the Igbo are one of the three largest groups in Nigeria, the others being the Yoruba and the Hausa. The current population of Nigeria numbers around 155,215,573. The Igbo, who are located mostly in the southeastern region, make up 18%. In Igbo culture, hospitality plays a huge role in making and keeping friends. Building a friendship usually depends on some common interests and understanding the rules of etiquette. In America, when you go to someone’s house for dinner, you often bring something as a “hostess gift” – candy, wine, or a dessert. This sharing helps everyone come together. For the Igbo, the important ingredient is kola nut, and it’s not an option! An African riddle asks “What is better: kola or meat?”
The bowl that I “discovered” in the African collection is used to offer kola to others. Kola symbolizes the hospitality extended on every important occasion. The ritual of offering kola, whether to one’s guests at home or to the gods and ancestors in a sacred space, includes the presentation of the kola nut, where a plate or a bowl may be used, the breaking or dividing of the nut, and finally its distribution to all present. The actual plate used for presentation does not matter, except that a finely carved one is evidence of the host’s wealth and success that comes from hard work. The gift of kola, no matter how small a piece is handed out, is considered a kind gesture on the host’s part and it satisfies the demands of hospitality. However, if you offer someone a small piece of meat, you will be considered a stingy host indeed! So the answer to the riddle is that “kola is better than meat!”
After showing the kola to family and guests, it is broken into its natural sections (called cotyledons). It is distributed to those present, the host taking the first bite to show everyone that it is safe to eat. Then pieces are passed around beginning with the oldest people there. The final touchis to dip the kola into a spicy sauce made with pepper. That’s the purpose of the “well” under the carved lid!
Serendipity brought the kola bowl to my attention, and I found it most appropriate that it represented hospitality. I had found a group of people at the Fitchburg Art Museum who showed me, and show all visitors, hospitality in the warmth of their greeting. But they will not offer you kola – or the kola they offer will not be a pink, slightly rubbery, bitter chew… Instead, FAM offers you a chance to learn and experience art and culture from many parts of the world. No matter how many times you come to visit, there is something new to “taste” and the warmth shown on the first visit is never lost.