Makonde Art:The Leon V. and Norrie Johnson Hirsch Collection

Amelie A. Wallace Gallery

October 20 – November 29, 2014

Curated by Hyewon Yi

Opening Reception: Wednesday October 22, 2014, from 4 to 6pm

Exhibition Walkthroughs with the Curator: Wednesday, October 22, at 5pm

Makonde Art presents a selection of ninety modern Makonde sculptures donated to Amelie A. Wallace Gallery in 2010 by Dr. Leon V. Hirsch, a retired professor of the School of Business at SUNY College at Old Westbury.

Professor Hirsch (b. 1931, New York, and known to friends and associates as “Lee”) was raised in the New York metropolitan area. He earned a B.A. at Cornell University, and master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard Business School. His doctoral dissertation won a prestigious Ford Foundation award in 1960.

Hirsch pursued a career in international economic development in Africa and Central America.  In the late 1960s, he worked for United Research supervising economic development teams in Tanzania, Nicaragua, Kenya, Ghana, and Ivory Coast. While working in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania under the aegis of USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and studying road feasibility and water supply for United Research, Hirsch discovered his passion for Makonde sculpture.


Hirsch’s career followed a corporate path with jobs at Xerox, Franklin Mint, and IU International. Later, he served as Dean of the Business School at Quinnipiac College in Connecticut, and, in 1983, Hirsch came to SUNY College at Old Westbury as Dean of Business and Public Affairs. In 1985, Hirsch was appointed tenured Professor of Management, Marketing, and Information Systems. He retired as Professor Emeritus in March 2003. During his time at Old Westbury, Hirsch participated in international exchange programs with universities in China and Korea.


Hirsch was always interested in the arts and cultures of foreign countries. He was one of the first Eagle Scouts to attend International Jamboree in France after World War II. He travelled to over one hundred nations for study, business, or pleasure, and his home reflects his passion for art from Asia, Central America, Haiti, the Middle East, and Africa as well as American traditional and folk art. Hirsch and his wife, Norrie Johnson Hirsch, with whom Professor Hirsch shares the title of his collection, reside in Sarasota, Florida.


The works in this exhibition were collected between 1967 and 1969 from a number of sources in and about Dar es Salaam, including the Makonde artists themselves, as well as a Danish collector, and several merchants representing the artists, the most important among them, Mohamed Peera. The collection comprises Shetani (spirit figures) as well as a few Binadamu (naturalistic genre pieces) and Ujamaa (“people poles” or “people piles”). The pieces were carved from Mpingo, a dense black timber of East Africa widely used for fabricating musical instruments and fine furniture. The wood’s deep color and superior resilience offer the carver both aesthetic and practical advantages. The Makonde artists who produced this mid-twentieth century sculptural style have Mozambican roots, having migrated north to the southern plains of what was Tanganyika in the late nineteenth century seeking work on plantations and escape from Portuguese colonial powers. Produced initially for tribal use, the sculptures evolved into a commercial market in Dar es Salaam.


Shetani (spirit figures) is a highly original art form that ceded its naturalistic origins in favor of what the Western eye might consider a surreal vision. Carved as a sole figure or a group of figures, Shetani utilize distorted forms and complex, open work of multiple, intertwined, grotesque figures. The Binadamu subjects depict naturalistic human figures, while Ujamaa, meaning “unity, cooperation, brotherhood” in Swahili, consists of stacked intertwined human figures arranged in a column or pole. While some critics argue that Ujamaa have political origins (the term is almost synonymous with post-independence East African politics), the carvings also include family groups, teachers with pupils, and groups of acrobats and monkeys.


The Leon V. and Norrie Johnson Hirsch Makonde Art Collection is Amelie A. Wallace Gallery’s first permanent collection. Its archives will enter the Gallery’s library and along with the sculptures may be viewed by appointment after the conclusion of the exhibition.