Out of Africa 

Thanks to Owen Mort, Utah Museum of Fine Arts can showcase “Arts of a Continent.”

Owen D. Mort Jr. has made gifts to museums around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution and the prestigious Heard Museum in Phoenix. So how did this collector happen to choose Salt Lake City to receive 3,000 pieces of African art?


The late director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, E. Frank Sanguinetti, long suspected subversion was a major motivator. Asked about that possibility in a telephone interview, Mort laughed and said, “Good for him.”


“I had lived in Salt Lake City in the early 1960s and was familiar with the area,” he added. “There were not a lot of [African Americans] there; it was a cultural hole. I wanted to give people a chance to see some of the material, do some studying on their own and learn about these areas [of the world].”


Mort lived and worked in Zaire but collected from all over Africa. He initially gave the UMFA 2,000 objects in 1985. “He visited the museum quietly, on his own,” recalls then-assistant UMFA director Chuck Loving, via phone from the University of Notre Dame. “He planned to give it to a public institution, and thought the collection would make a big difference in Utah.”


While the UMFA has made other acquisitions, “the core of our collection continues to be gifts and loans from Mr. Mort,” said Bernadette Brown, curator of African art, adding that Mort will attend the upcoming public Juneteenth celebration for a look at “Africa: Arts of a Continent,” which hangs through Sept. 15.


Budget constraints dictated narrowing the number of objects exhibited, so Brown chose to focus on four cultures: the Dogon of Mali, the Baulé of the Ivory Coast, the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Kuba Kingdom of the Congo.


Brown said in some cultures the head is where soul is situated, so you will see many large heads represented, “but the seat of emotion is the stomach, which is why you see large navels extruding” from a figure. Many items have a utilitarian use, as well.


One intriguing piece is a Blolo Bian, or “Spirit Spouse,” from the Ivory Coast’s Baulé culture. The idea is that each person has a spirit mate of the opposite sex in the Other World, to whom you were married before you were born. The spirit follows you into mortal life, aiding in matters of wealth, achievement and interpersonal relationships. This spiritual spouse can also cause trouble if it isn’t happy, so it is kept well fed, clean and protected with a covering.


While the African collection was “resting” the past several years, many of the Egyptian works were also in storage. The new exhibition includes Egyptian burial objects from various dynasties. Themes include Fragments of the Past, Adornment for Life and Life After, Sacred Writing'Hieroglyphs and Gods and Goddesses.


Mort appreciates the UMFA’s diligent effort to take care of his pieces, now numbering some 3,000, and is eager to show off his huge bead collection next. He thinks “the necklaces, earrings and so forth from Africa” will appeal more “to the ladies and girls” than the carvings.


Upon his return from a couple of years in Afghanistan, Mort taught himself to play and to build his own stringed instruments. That led to organizing the top-notch Blythe (Calif.) Bluegrass Festival some 18 years ago. This Renaissance man also created two volumes for the UMFA on about 500 pieces in the collection. “All handwritten and illustrated, illuminated pages and all. Bound in leather,” he said with evident pride. That was after leaving the board of an Arizona button museum, another specialty.


Mort continues to take pleasure in collecting and bestowing, whether to the Smithsonian or a museum in Casper, Wyo. Because, he said simply, “Different things go different places.”

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Ann Poore

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