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African Objects from the Private Collection of Paul Jacobs ’63 Opens a Window to African Tribal Culture
Ashley Taube

From August 29 to September 14, a carefully curated selection of pieces from Paul Jacobs ’63’s collection of African art objects—graciously donated to Blair—will be on display in the Romano Gallery.

Of the many pieces in the collection, the exhibition will include a carved Ibeji from the Yoruba people of West Africa who have the highest twin birth rate in the world. Thus in Yoruba culture, the Ibeji is regarded as an object bringing wealth and good fortune to their families.

Often born small, sub-Saharan twins suffer higher mortality rates, and the Yoruba people believe that when one twin dies, they summon their other twin to join them. The tradition of Ibeji is a ritual to soothe the lost twin’s soul. The mother bathes and cares for the Ibeji at the same time she cares for her living twin. After that child is grown, they take over the care of their Ibeji, and they are passed down through generations. This passing down assures that the family’s lost souls are placated and ensures that current and future family members will not be harmed. The ritual caring for the Ibeji gives the object their distinctive patina.

“These pieces are utilized in their societies as part of their daily lives,” Mr. Jacobs explained. “To reach the highest level of authenticity, the piece must be made for and used by the tribe. They hold spiritual meanings, connect the tribal members with their ancestors and often relate to superstitions that are central to the tribe. The items in this collection point to certain periods of people’s lives. That’s a process that keeps different generations together.”

Art was not always Mr. Jacobs’ passion. As a successful attorney in New York City, the loyal Blair alum was drawn to African tribal art after reading about art history, a subject he didn’t study in school. He began visiting a large number of collections and learning the difficult skill of discerning authenticity from dealers, prominent collectors and curators at various locations.

“I decided to try to master one of the most difficult areas to collect—tribal arts,” Mr. Jacobs explained. “I chose this area in part out of respect for its influence in geometric abstraction and the intellectual rigor required to evaluate authenticity and understand tribal life.”

Mr. Jacobs hopes sharing his collection with the Blair community will help them to understand the strong roots of different societies and cultures, crucial to a diverse community. “The collection spans art and sociology,” he noted. “Every object has meaning and connection, and to understand the purpose of the item helps in understanding African tribal society. I thought it was important for Blair to share in the learning and have a collection available for students to study.”

A gallery talk will be held at the Romano Gallery on September 14, beginning at 7 p.m., and members of the public are welcome to attend. At the end of the exhibit, the collection Mr. Jacobs has graciously donated to Blair Academy will be on display in the Chiang-Elghanayan Center for Innovation and Collaboration, available for future classroom use to enhance students’ learning experience.

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