Reviewed by D. Othniel Forte
“In to Liberty”
65” by 95” on 5 Panels
Fe medium with Cu elements
Artist: Nora MusuArt has always fascinated me. I mean since I was a kid visiting the National Museum on Broad Street or whenever we traveled, I found ways to get lost in artistic expressions. The aesthetics has always held a spell over me. It is also no secret that my favorite two female artists of Liberian descent are Josephine Barnes and Nora Musu. They have warmed their ways into this heart and many with soft spots for creativity.
However, Nora outdid herself with “In to Liberty”. This work is homage to our Liberian motto, “The Love of Liberty Brought Us here“.
About the show: Today’s piece is currently on display at The Ohio Wesleyan University, The Ross Art Museum, as part of ‘Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow’. In celebration of the Black History Month, Bettye Stull, the curator, assembled twenty-nine emerging and established African American artists in the Columbus area, with the hope of capturing, in part, the soul of the great Harlem Renaissance.
About the piece: The artist notes that she took inspiration from the piece, “Into Bondage” by Artist Aaron Douglas, who is noted for setting the “stage for contemporary African American artists to explore African concepts and themes.” Now if you have not seen Douglas’ work, you must. He captures the essence of the final stages of slaves as they leave their homes for the great unknown. The dejectedness, the defeat, the death looming, the sorrows can all be seen in that painting.
The artist writes that, as a “descendant of emigrants to Liberia, I wanted to imagine the elation and apprehension my ancestors may have felt at the first sight of the land they had chosen to return to.”
“All those high emotions may have sharply contrasted with those feeling of a captive going into exile in Douglas’s “Into Bondage.”
This, for me, is Nora being modest about her work. It is an oversimplification at best. True, one should put both paintings together to grasp the full extent of what is being captured here as far as history is concerned. That is important, I must admit. But, a crucial matter being disguised here is the narrative of a nation that refused to fall whither under the weight of the world, Liberia.
On five plates, the artist displays her mastery. She produces a work that is as finely created as if it were on a canvas. Nora’s comfort with multiple media is amazing, her simplicity is misleading and her talent is indisputable. Her attention to detail is remarkable. From the pronounced drops of rain to the pines on the bark of the palm tree; from the branches and leaves of the tree to the waves of the sea, Nora pulls out of an otherwise dead, inanimate object, a vibrant scene of life.
She begins her story with the sailing vessel on a raging sea. The Sun rises behind the ship lighting it with its brilliance. The golden rays shine through the branches of the tree and against the sail of the vessel. Flickers even make their way over the waves, lending the plate a sense of surrealism- The wind tosses the ship there and about, but it remains afloat. Decades later, this would be the story of the virgin nation that began with the 88 migrants aboard the Elizabeth- the Mayflower of Liberia. Interestingly, the whole scene seems to be captured by an onlooker from ashore- someone peeping through the thick forest; perhaps a scout observing the approaching vessel.
Here, we see the thick, fertileness of the new land. The intricate roots overgrown branches and multiple leaves are indicators that the migrants’ struggle might just be over for good. They lend some truth to the belief that their new home was awash with ‘milk and honey’.
The third plate offers an interesting phenomenal. It is the longest in the set. The plough and shovel rest just above some deep roots dropping over from the previous plate, but under the dove with outstretched wings and a scroll in its beak. This is a play on the original seal elements. The lone stem of petals and the giant leave take us right into the fourth plate. The artist sets the stage for what is to come. The hard work and dignity in labor represented by the plow and shovel tends to pay off.
The giant leave is clearly impressed over the equally imposing and ever rich Palm Tree- the nation’s most versatile tree, a tree of life. It gives rich, healthy palm oil; palm seeds from which Palm Butter is made; it is further processed to a nut form and even more so to another kind of kernel oil which our ancestors used for so many purposes. They used the leaves for roofing thatch houses; making brooms and other household items; The artist’s rendering clearly shows the fineness of the pines, the leaves and the flowers.
Nora Musu’s last plate is the smallest but the attention to detail is extraordinary. The big leaf is cut in a way that one can easily make out an outline of a Dan mask looming over the individual drops of rain. One can literally feel the drops- a testament to the relatively high levels of rain experienced in Liberia. Water, which is life, abounds and if one is religious, then the heavens open up unusually to shower blessings.
The artists tells a narrative that is most logical. Unlike the seal, ‘In to Liberty’ has the advantage of space to tell the migration story better. The ship came, landed, conquered the terrain, then cultivated the land and its major produce, all the whilst dealing with the weather and people the Americo Settlers met.
Nora Musu is a Liberian-American artist whose art and life experiences epitomize an organic multiculturalism that transcends boundaries. Born in Madison, WI, to Liberian parents, Musu was raised in Liberia, went to boarding school in England and spent much of her adult life in the U.S. Developing an interest in abstract art at an early age, her first inspiration was her uncle and classically trained musician Nugent Frances Cooper. Later at the University of Liberia, her mentor and art professor, Cietta David Mensah, played an influential role in shaping her artistic style and technique.
Musu primarily uses an innovative blend of acrylic polymer, iron and copper particles, enhanced by a process of rusting and patina, to create a three-dimensional sculptural relief effect that is reminiscent of ancient African stone and wooden sculpture.
She particularly admired these artists’ ability to use unconventional materials and methods. Her cultural influences are evident in her eclectic use of mixed media, movement, texture and large landscapes.
Her pieces have been exhibited internationally, including the DuSable Museum (IL), the Museum of Science and Industry (IL) and the United Nations and in several private collections.
Musu currently resides in Columbus, OH.