At the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, a video plays on a loop of South African artist Berni Searle’s bare feet walking across surf, stone and salt in the Canary Islands. At the end of the film, we see the artist meld into the Earth itself. The video serves as the opening to the Museum’s new exhibit, “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa,” and shows how humans use feet to connect and form a relationship to the Earth.

Last week, the Museum welcomed both its and the state of Maine’s first major collection of African art, which explores the Earth as a connective thread between the medium of artwork and important themes of political geography and climate change in contemporary and traditional African art.

The exhibit is on loan from the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The collection’s curator, Karen Milbourne, started to assemble the collection in 2009 when she began to ask questions about how contemporary artists approach issues of climate change and politics using new mediums. Rather than commissioning artwork for the collection, Milbourne used both the Smithsonian’s permanent collection of African art and reached out contemporary artists. She explained her role as gathering different viewpoints from African artists to answer universal questions about belonging to the Earth.

The collection represents 17 different countries across the African continent and houses about 50 pieces of varying, multimedia artwork. Since the collection’s inception, it has been on display at the National Museum of African Art in 2013 and the Fowler Museum at the University of California Los Angeles in 2014.

The work in the exhibit dates to circa 1800 in conjunction with the first Europeans entering central Africa in search of natural resources to fuel the industrial revolution, Thomas Jefferson and the British House of Lords abolishing international slave trade and increased personal travel.

“All those things are happening at this time period, and it changed how people saw here and there, mine and yours, and the ancestors…you see it in the arts,” Milbourne said.

To help realize the exhibit’s complicated themes, Milbourne divided the exhibit into five distinct sections: the Material Earth, the Power of the Earth, Imagining the Underground, Strategies of the Surface and Art as Environmental Action.
In the Material Earth and the Power of the Earth, the artists use earth as their medium to question notions of identity and define not only what Earth means, but how people choose to connect to it.

“Depending on who you ask you’re going to get a lot of different answers,” said Milbourne. “You ask some artists and [Earth] may be a particular earthen material, so it really lays out what are the materials that everyone of us consider to be the earth. Would it be mud?”
The exhibit then moves to Imaging the Underground, which examines the space and location of the Earth, the divine and political geography.

“If you think about the underground, it’s something you can dig, dig, dig and dig, but you’re never going to get to the bottom of it,” Milbourne said. “Earth is something you can feel it, you can see it, you can touch it, but you cannot see through it and you cannot fully understand what’s at the bottom of it, much like the divine. You’ll find that for many cultures that the underground earth is a way of concretely or materially expressing the relationship things that are bigger than ourselves.”

In this section, the Museum installed a video by the South African artist William Kentridge in the excavated, lower level of the Museum. In the animation, a wealthy businessman presses on French press coffee maker, which turns into a tunnel with skulls, bones and traditional African art objects. The mineshaft then opens up into the floor plan of the Brooke’s slave ship, which, according to Milbourne, calls in question all that has been excavated from the African continent and global entanglement.

“That’s one playful way we’ve tried to literalize some of the thinking about surface and penetrating down, and connecting with the themes of the exhibition,” Co-Director of the Museum Anne Collins Goodyear said.

 In the final section, Art as Environmental Action, the artists examine climate change as a contemporary issue and challenge viewers to be mindful.

“It’s intended to draw attention to the fact that artists are not decorators and artists are not passively documenting the world around them, but are the very individuals who…create works of art to draw attention to sustainable practices,” Milbourne said.

Collins Goodyear and her husband Co-Director Frank Goodyear both believe that the themes of the exhibit not only appeal to the academic interests of Bowdoin students, but also the greater Brunswick and Maine community, given the increase of African immigrants in Midcoast Maine over the last 20 years.

“Sometimes we like to think about Bowdoin as this ‘small college in Maine,’ but of course despite the fact that we may occupy a relatively small piece of territory, we know that intellectually the shadow that this place casts is tremendous,” Collins Goodyear said. “We have an opportunity with the nature of our collections to juxtapose the historic with the contemporary and to look across the globe at what art means today and what it has meant historically.”

According to Goodyear, the exhibit also relates to the Museum’s goal of posing challenging and thought-provoking questions.

“The exhibition asks this universal question: what is one’s relationship to the land, what are our connections to this place, how do we feel a sense of belonging to this place, what does it mean when groups are either forced and volunteer to leave one area and go someplace else,” Goodyear said. “It’s really the mission of this museum to pose challenging questions and to develop exhibition that allow artists to have a response to some of those questions.”