Art Collection Celebrates African Tribes, Customs

A lifetime of art collecting and international travel will now benefit students at UT Arlington.

For the past several years, Dr. Jon Campbell, professor and chair of the Department of Biology, and his wife Tanya Dowdey, a biology teacher in the Arlington ISD, have quietly been donating select pieces from their personal African art collection. Many of the items were acquired during Campbell’s trips to Africa.

“I am glad to give this collection to UTA,” Campbell said.  “Art is meant to be enjoyed by others. It makes me feel good that other people besides my wife and I can enjoy this.”

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Late last month, the Department of Art & Art History put the items on display in the Visual Resource Commons room, located on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building. Department officials said faculty and students will be able to use the art in the course of their studies and gain insight into how indigenous tribes expressed themselves visually.

Campbell first began collecting art in his early 20s. He said he was drawn to art representing African tribes and villages because of the anthropological elements – how carved wooden masks or sculpted pottery would be used in tribal customs or traditions. During his travels to western Africa, Campbell said he always kept an eye out for a new or unusual piece, making sure he documented the origin and purpose of each work. The donated collection will also serve to preserve the memory and tradition of people half a world away.

“Some of the customs in some of the tribes are beginning to die out,” he said, “so the artwork is not being produced as much as it used to be.”

Some of his favorite pieces in the new collection include an older, heavy statue from the Bobo tribe in Mali and the Nimba masks from the Baga tribe in Guinea.

“Every piece I see reminds me of where I got it and where I was,” said Campbell, who has taught at UTA since 1982. “If a piece speaks to me, I really want it. My favorite pieces are some of the larger pieces because of the difficulty of getting them from Africa to here.”

Campbell said he and his wife are thrilled to be able to provide UTA students with the opportunity to see and study the artwork in person, and not through a textbook or catalog.

“We’re delighted the collection has created some interest in African art and we’re able to contribute in some small way to Liberal Arts,” he said.

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