Hammonds House Museum: Home is Where the Art Is

hammond8When I first approached the entrance to the Hammonds House Museum, I was surprised by its appearance. From the outside, it looked more like a quaint cottage than a museum. It’s located at 503 Peeples St. Southwest Atlanta, nestled in the West End community. I’ve been to the Smithsonian Institute and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art so I’d become accustomed to larger than life exhibits in immense galleries. However, I found the smaller venue refreshing and more communal.

The museum, which was the residence of the late Dr. Otis Hammonds, was opened in 1988 to preserve art from the African Diaspora. Dr. Hammonds was a respected physician in Atlanta as well as a notable art collector and patron. According to the Hammonds House Museum website, the museum has a permanent collection of over 350 works from the mid-19th century by artists from America, Africa, and the Caribbean. Additionally, the museum receives major funding from the Fulton County Board of Commissioners and has a rotation of five to six changing exhibitions annually.

hammond2The inside of Hammonds House Museum was very cozy and welcoming, just like a carefully tended home. I noticed large African sculptures on my right, pristine chandeliers, and elegant furnishings. Smooth jazz accentuated the decor and created a mellow atmosphere. This was the perfect setting to relax, reflect, and revere art. While I enjoyed my previous visits to other museums, I was appreciative of the close-knit surroundings.

The first exhibition I observed was “Cultural Diagnostics: The Imprint of African Textiles and Objects.” This exhibition was donated by art collector Michael Mack and displays numerous artifacts from various African nations. The wealth of African culture was truly a remarkable sight. Gallery A, the first section of the exhibition, included a “Mporro Women Necklace/Collar” a “Woman Frontal Apron,” also known as a “Akodat or esiya,” a “Sirutia Necklace,” a “Zulu Beaded Necklace,” and many other African accessories. The craftsmanship of nations such as Kenya, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe thrived in these pieces.

hammond1In Gallery B, there was a collection that included items such as a “Ngombe Ceremonial Knife,” an “Ogboni Society Tribal Sword,” “Turkana Ivory Labrets,” “Dinka Ivory Finger Rings,” a “Zulu Terracotta Drinking Cup,” and many other African artifacts. One ancient relic that caught my eye was the “Katanga Cross.” This cross, which originated from the Katanga province in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, was composed of copper alloy and archeological patina. From the 13th to the 17th century, it was primarily used as currency in Katanga and surrounding Central African nations. Another fascinating piece, titled “Koranic Board,” was created by a Tuareg artist from Mauritania during the 1960s. This work stood out to me because I had never heard of the nation of Mauritania or the Tuareg people prior to attending the museum. It was also interesting to learn about the materials used to create each piece. Some of the materials included glass beads, metal beads, hide, sinew thread, copper rings, goatskin, vegetable fiber, banana leaf, corn husk, ilala palm fiber, leather, monitor lizard skin, ostrich shell, bronze, and iron.

Part of the Hammonds House permanent collection was in a pristine living room area on the first floor. I noticed wooden sculptures, photos of Dr. Hammonds, and ornate paintings. On the mantle above a marble furnace, I noticed a large sculpture called a “Chi-wara” (also known as “Ci Wara” or “Tyi Wara”). The piece was made with wood, rope, and cowrie shells. It is described as “a ritual object representing an antelope, used by the Bambara ethnic group in Mali to teach young Bamana men social values as well as agricultural techniques.” Having no knowledge of my own African lineage, I was overjoyed to discover a plethora of African art and culture.

hammond3The final exhibition I observed,  titled “The FAIR GAME Project: Open Season,” was by an artist named Shanequa Gay. According to her bio, she created the exhibit as “her advocacy on behalf of African-American males, which is inspired in large part by her hopes, fears, and concerns for her own son.” In contrast to the previous exhibitions, this one was modern and more reflective of current events. The first piece I came across, titled “Gone Shootin’,” embodies her fears and concerns for African-American males. The piece depicted the silhouettes of men and deer, and hybrids of men and deer fleeing men armed with guns across barbed wire fences. The imagery symbolizes unarmed black men being preyed upon by hunters with handguns. The juxtaposition of unarmed men with deer illustrates how black men are, in some instances, treated merely as game and hunted by law enforcement officials. The hybrids represent the convergence of human and feral forms; in the eyes of the hunters, the men are indistinguishable from the deer. While viewing this piece, I reflected on the recent slayings of unarmed black men. “Gone Shootin'” is a unique interpretation of police brutality, and I was moved by Shanequa Gay’s artwork.

Several other pieces in “The FAIR GAME Project: Open Season” exhibition highlighted the plight and perseverance of blacks in America. A painting titled, “In Order To Win the War You Have To Kill the King” signifies the martyrdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the forefront, Dr. King Jr. is wearing a crown with blood dripping from the sides of his face. The background shows images from the Civil Rights Movement. Another painting titled, “Sweet Land of Liberty Burning,” depicts the unrest following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri obscured by the blurred colors of the American flag.

hammond7

After finishing my tour of the museum, I had the opportunity to speak with Myrna Anderson-Fuller, the executive director for Hammonds House Museum. She explained the value of the museum and its larger role in the Atlanta community. “For several reasons I think we’re unique. We’re one of the few museums that feature art of the African Diaspora in the Southeast that’s an independent museum not connected to a school of higher learning. We also try to give in-depth information about our exhibitions so that there’s more than just viewing art. We try to have learning modules as well as ‘artist talks’ and programming around the incoming exhibitions that helps the viewer not only understand art of the African Diaspora, but the artists, that person’s work, what’s behind that work, and how it relates to current events, such as “The Fair Game Project.”

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Hammonds House Museum. It was an informative and unforgettable experience. The treasures of the African Diaspora and the works of African-American artists are wonderful representations of Africa’s bountiful heritage. If you’re a fan of African and African-American art, or simply looking for a more intimate art scene, I highly recommend attending the Hammonds House Museum. The museum also holds meetings for membership in the African Americans for the Arts group. For more information, please visit www.hammondshouse.org and www.a-afta.org.

-Elijah Yarbrough