Art History Major Brings Arcadia Treasures to Light

By Purnell T. Cropper | November 20, 2012

Photography CHRISTINA YEE ’14

The Rilling Collection of African and Asian artifacts had been cooped up in storage since it was given as a gift to the University in 2008. The pieces were kept in the University Archives on the lower level of Landman Library, out of reach of the average student. Enter Dao La ’13, an imaginative and resourceful Art History major with a knack for discovery and curation, who brought a selection of the impressive works out of archival obscurity for a week-long exhibition as part of her Honors Project.

“I had always wondered why they weren’t displayed somewhere,” says La, recalling how one piece in particular, the Baga Wood Female Headdress, which peaked out of an Archives window, grabbed her attention whenever she passed by. The massive piece, with its textural grass trimming, now serves as the centerpiece of La’s show in the Judith Taylor Gallery, a fitting tribute to the work that inspired the project.

The Gallery is a small, meditative space. The white walls, lit to ethereal shades of butter and cream, are punctuated by African sculptures unchanged by the passing of years, while a cart displays French and German books featuring photos of the Collection, reminding onlookers that Arcadia holds a small treasure. The pottery and sculptures seem nestled in an unbreakable serenity penetrating cultures and time.

La is the first to admit that staging the exhibition was anything but peaceful. “I didn’t have any real experience coordinating an exhibition, so I had thought it was going to be easy—like just taking the pieces out and placing them somewhere in a gallery,” she says. In actuality, it was an incredibly challenging process.

First, she faced the overwhelming task of researching and selecting pieces for the show. This proved difficult, as the Rilling Collection is comprised of more than 200 artifacts. But La charged forward, emboldened by her daily discoveries and validated in her conviction that the awe-inspiring pieces deserved to be displayed.

Guided by Ellen Lefebvre, Cataloger and Archive Liaison, La began researching each work and piecing together a timeline. By understanding the origins of individual pieces, she could identify which would best complement each other. The result is a diverse but unified selection comprised of artifacts from countries including Guinea, Nigeria, Cameroon and Papua New Guinea. Though pained to omit the scads of Asian art and media, La narrowed the selection to African ceramics. This way the variety of styles and cultures could be easily appreciated as the pieces didn’t have to compete with utterly different works.

La then embarked on finding a space. After briefly considering the Commons Gallery, La decided that the Judith Taylor Gallery would be a better fit, with its proximity to the University Archives, where the pieces were originally stored, and its quiet locale. There the works of art could command full attention. After refining her proposal, La got the go-ahead to begin setting up.

“When Matt Borgen, Gallery Technician, gave us the green light we knew it was time to really work,” said La. In only a few short days, the space was transformed. If you happened to be in the basement of the library, you may have encountered La and Lefebvre moving the pieces themselves, carefully toting the beloved works across the lower level of Landman Library.

With the exhibit spiffy and ready-to-go, La had to publicize it. “My (Honors Project) professor, Bernard Wilson, and Ellen helped with getting the word out during the short amount of time we had,” says La, thankful for the help amidst the scramble to print fliers, get the event in newsletters and let everyone know through word of mouth. A few little tweaks—lists of the collection pieces here, a few identification tags there—and the exhibit was up and running.

Looking at her work, La’s eyes light up, proud of the display she built from top to bottom. Though it’s true an artist never believes her work complete. “There are going to be shelves on the back wall with some of the small bowls,” she explains, eyeing the empty space. Some may not see the benefit to showcasing these works, but La recognizes the impact the exhibit can have. “Seeing as the theme of Arcadia is the global experience, I think the exhibition does a great job bringing a different cultural voice to Arcadia and its surrounding community.”

The exhibition will be on display in Judith Taylor Gallery until Tuesday, Nov. 20.