▲ Left, The Jeju Weekly writer Wilkine Brutus, second from right, with performers at the Museum of African Art. Photo by Wilkine Brutus.
When South Africa, the host of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, scored the first goal to kick-off the Olympic-caliber soccer tournament which consists of 32 competing nations from around the world, it sparked an eruption of celebration and unification throughout the African continent. The Museum of African Art on Jeju, in its six-year residence on the island, has also scored a meaningful goal by establishing a foundation of cultural understanding through an African repository of historical artifacts and contemporary art-works. Also known simply as the Africa Museum and first established in Seoul in 1998, the museum holds the largest African art collection in Asia. The collection highlights the significance and human contribution of the African continent and with the World Cup at the focus of media attention, a visit to the museum makes the experience all the more fascinating.
Despite the emphasis on artifacts and art at the Africa Museum, the African continent is also most infamously plagued by civil wars and painstaking poverty and with the World Cup being front and center; a unique perspective of significance has ascended from its forlorn depths. The museum, as a result, has fostered a renewed interest, which already existed to some degree, but maintaining that dialogue will be a difficult albeit rewarding feat.
“Jeju and Kenya, in East Africa, have a similar influence, similar atmosphere,” said deputy director, Han Sung Bin. “Also, you know, we don’t have any [shared] cultural background but if you’re involved in anthropology and archeology, we have some similarities.” In 2003, Han and renowned photographer, Kim Jung Man visited the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali, South Africa. With several designs in consideration, Han and the other museum directors ultimately chose to build the museum on Jeju to look like the 13th century mosque.
▲ Deputy director Han Sung Bin, above, is attempting to introduce Africa to Koreans through the museum's exhibitions, below. Photos courtesy Africa Museum
Han’s passion for Africa and general cultural understanding is immediately apparent in his book-filled office. Despite the success of the museum thus far, he has many more goals to fulfill. Having lived in the United States for eight years and in Africa for three, his insights on the similarities and differences are keen, as are his views on how Koreans perceive Africa and Africans. “It’s hard for some Koreans to intermingle with other cultural backgrounds [and] civilizations, so it’s the hardest thing that I struggle with,” he said. Han spent a lot of energy on several other exhibitions and projects to introduce the African culture to his home country, both on the mainland and on Jeju, and said it will take many years for Koreans to adjust to the appreciation of other cultures such as African.
In contrast with what is currently happening on Jeju and mainland Korea, the museum surprisingly lacks illustrations of a modernized African civilization mixed with its ancient history. Despite major modernized cities such as Cape Town, Johannesburg and Dakar, Han sought to illustrate the continent’s visual aesthetics from a cultural point of view and deliberately downplayed what he considered an over-importance of modernization.
“Modernization always destroys something — valuable things,” he said. “Modernization destroys nature, sometimes it destroys history and culture, but we still need modernization, technology and science.” He added that the valuable and unique artwork that illustrates the identity of Africans is more important than what has evolved from it, but acknowledged the modernization of many parts of Africa.
▲ Photo courtesy Africa Museum
Han has attempted to showcase more about Africa but said that the difficulty was in the hands of the Korean people. “There are still stereotypes about the African continent,” he said, “so I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do for my next step.” The steps he has taken already are huge and the museum has become a cultural foundation from which to converse more about Africa.
The Africa Museum also features performances by traditional African musicians three times a day, six days a week. Papis, a dreadlock-wearing West African (from Senegal) is currently performing with two other gifted musicians. He said, in a broken accent, “Music is universal; it makes people happy and brings people together, just like the World Cup and the museum.”
The establishment of the Africa Museum has scored a first goal in bringing unification and cultural understanding to Jeju and for Han, Papis and the museum’s many visitors, that represents a World Cup worth of significance.
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